Museums Take a Timeout

After a trying spring, parts of Norwegian art life are rising again as if nothing had happened. But not everyone has finished recovering.

Sverre Gullesen, Flagg, 2020. Photo: Julie Hrnčířová.

The two pole dancers Jorge Lera and Ida Koppang did not call much attention to themselves as they clung to their respective flagpoles outside Kunstnernes Hus, gently hoisting Sverre Gullesen’s creations into the air. The artist himself stood on the roof above the terrace in front of the building, trying to give a speech. The speech, however, had to be put on hold due to an annoying squeaking noise from one of the flagpoles, which he initially mistook for feedback from the PA system. Gullesen’s performance was part of the 90th anniversary celebration of Kunstnernes Hus, but in this context it also announced the Norwegian art scene’s tenacious recovery after a grim spring.

Gullesen talked about what the place meant to him as a building and an institution. In closing he encouraged artists to claim ownership over the house and contribute to shaping it. The importance of the structures that frame our encounters with art were indeed brought to the fore this spring as museums and galleries closed down and mediation moved online. Art’s relationship with its institutions is not only about the help they provide in getting works realised and connecting them to a public; their purpose is also to provide the specific conditions upon which the experience of art relies.

Another performance that, for me, set the season’s tone was the one carried out by Marianne Heier in conjunction with her exhibition earlier this month at the artist-run venue 222T in Oslo. Dressed in tight-fitting gold attire, she led us up the stairs of the old brick building that houses the gallery, all the while dancing and singing and occasionally channelling the ‘sorcerer’ Simon Magus, a biblical heretic. Were we witnessing a re-romanticisation of the artist? Certainly, Heier belaboured the historical affinity between artist and clairvoyant. Speaking of visions that not everyone can attain, Heier’s show will be followed later in September by an exhibition featuring the less noted younger brother of Gustav Vigeland, Emanuel, best known for his mausoleum at Slemdal in Oslo, which unfortunately is in disrepair due to insufficient maintenance.

Marianne Heier, Simon Magus, 2020. Photo: Kristine Jakobsen.

Having been around for almost ten years now, Noplace has become a mainstay on Oslo’s artist-run scene. The venue ushers in the autumn season with a densely-hung presentation of Ilija Wyller’s paintings. Restless, coarse fields of colour jostle across canvases and paper sheets; hanging on the walls, lying in piles or stacked behind the bar, they attest to an active studio life. Also included is a volume of poetry, gaunt and gut-like silicone sculptures, and skeletal forms of steel mesh. Things also get intimate at Kunsthall Oslo, which introduces a new format this autumn called Studio Reports. The initiative comprises a series of presentations intended to offer insight into what is currently going on in artists’ studios, ideally showcasing works still in progress. The programme launches on 10 September with Ronak Moshtaghi and will present a new artist every week: Ask Bjørlo, Agatha Wara, Espen Kvålsvoll, Nathalie Fuica Sanchez, and Calle Segelberg.

A more recent addition to Oslo’s range of artist-run venues, Plum Trim takes the ‘event’ aspect of exhibition openings more seriously than most. Located in a renovation object on the Nesodden peninsula – strictly speaking, not located in Oslo – a short ferry ride from the city centre, it lures its audience with Lamu-style seafood barbecues and an incomparable view of the fjord. First up in its autumn programme is Sofie Berntsen, who, while certainly no mystic, seems confident in the intrinsic power of visual images.

While the art field in aggregate may boast a high stress tolerance, few of those with major institutional exhibitions scheduled for 2020 were likely as primed to incorporate the unforeseen as Joar Nango. When his festival exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall had to be postponed from May to September, he partnered with Ken Are Bongo to produce the miniseries Post-Capitalist Architecture TV in just two weeks. For the project, Nango transformed his van into a makeshift TV studio where he drops in between preparations for the exhibition to confer with interlocutors. Their projected faces are hilariously distorted by a jagged screen sewn from halibut stomachs, an improvised response to the deadening flatness of the video conference. The series is still available on the festival website.

Apart from Nango’s exhibition, the major museums and institutions are not where it’s at this autumn. Several have had to adjust their plans and will launch their initiatives later than originally scheduled. The openings of the Munch Museum and the National Museum’s new buildings have been pushed to 2021 (though not due to COVID-19), but the artist list for the latter’s inauguration exhibition was released yesterday (27 August). The title Jeg kaller det kunst (I call it art) hints at an intent to question the institution’s criteria for art validation, and the only common denominator for the 150 or so invitees is that none of them are represented in the museum’s collection.

Lars Paalgard & Oddvar I. N. Darén, Humus Line Multiple, 1984. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen / Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.

Meanwhile, Astrup Fearnley Museum is busy sweeping out the leftovers from former director Gunnar Kvaran’s tenure before commencing Solveig Øvstebø’s programme after the New Year. The exhibition Alpha Crucis, dedicated to contemporary African art, will presumably be the last geographically themed group exhibition from the museum for a while. It remains open until early September. In October, it will be succeeded by dystopian-minded American artist Josh Kline, who sees far less potential in the ruins of late capitalism than Nango. Keeping in mind the pandemic’s promise to accelerate humanity’s transformation into unemployed data-cattle, pessimism is perhaps permissible.

The headliner at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter this autumn is still An Exhilarating Experience for a Young Mind – a presentation of the museum’s collection, curated by Elise Storsveen, which opened in June and runs until April next year. Placing emphasis on Nordic post-war art, Storsveen’s stated objective with the wide-ranging material on display is to level hierarchical divides, echoing the progressivism at work at the National Museum. The ideal of radical inclusion is literally manifest in what, in terms of pure physical size, comprises the exhibition’s gravitational centre: a thirty-metre- long display case featuring Lars Paalgard and Oddvar I.N. Darén’s infamous Humus Line (1984), a photographic reproduction of what is presumably the most aesthetically and logistically unmanageable work ever seen in the history of Norwegian process art.

The pressure on institutions to offer replacement content for the holes left in their programmes from all the cancellations and postponements means that there has been no shortage of invitations to visit exhibitions and collections online. Stavanger Art Museum was quick about making (parts of) its exhibition In the Clouds, which opened in March and runs until October, available in digital form. In addition to a tour of the exhibition, its website offers a selection of breathing exercise videos featuring works from the exhibition. This slip between art and mindfulness highlights the competitive pressures imposed on art when mediated online; to capture our attention it needs the added utility of therapeutic framing. Magnus Oledal’s motorised contraptions in the exhibition Det er den tiden på natten da jeg lurer på hvor lenge det er igjen av natten (It’s that time of night when I wonder how long is left of the night) – which announced the autumn programme at Kunstnerforbundet on 13 August, alongside Marius Engh, Lydia Hauge Sølvberg, and Ian Giles – foregrounds these temporal contracts between viewer and work. Rarely has the insistent banality of kinetic sculpture felt more appropriate.

A call to action from students at the Oslo National Academy before the summer in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests had rector Måns Wrange reannounce the comprehensive three-year plan for “diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination strategies” that he had presented when taking up his position a year ago, which largely precipitated the students’ proposed measures. A heated exchange between students, professors, and commentators in Norwegian newspapers ensued. As yet, this struggle over rights seems to have had little direct impact on exhibition programmes at Norwegian venues. Only two exhibitions come to mind: the now-closed She is still alive! featuring British artist Rosa-Johan Uddoh, which opened at Destiny’s at the end of July, and Bouchra Khalili’s double presentation The Nordic Chapter at Oslo Kunstforening and Fotogalleriet, which explores the theme of solidarity in light of historical liberation movements.

Installation view from the exhibition Upstairs at Femtensesse in Oslo, 2020. Photo: Istvan Virag.

In October, Danish artist Jakob Jakobsen and Hospital Prison University Archive will appear at Guttormsgaards Arkiv (GGA) at Blaker to inaugurate Guttorm Guttormsgaard’s (1938–2019) flat as an exhibition venue, presenting a project based on a 1942 book by the Danish art mediator Rudolf Broby-Johansen. With its argument for a levelling of the difference in value between utilitarian objects and what he terms “world art,” Broby-Johansen’s book anticipates the horizontal principle underlying Guttormgaard’s archival practice. The flat will host art again in November, when American artist Sean Snyder reconstructs Room 11 of the old National Gallery in Guttormsgaard’s living room.

Newly launched gallery Femtensesse is run by Jenny Kinge, formerly associated with the artist-run venue 1857, and is located in a small room in the studio building Ila Pensjonat. For the exhibition Upstairs, which opened just before the summer and runs until the end of August, the gallery has expanded into a studio in the same building, a small nook in the idyllic backyard and, for a period, an advertising stand at the bus stop outside. The exhibition features names familiar from 1857 such as Mikael Øye Hegnar and Clémence de La Tour du Pin, in addition to Jennie Hagevik Bringaker and Martin Sæther. The latter will return with a solo show in November.

When I interviewed Apichaya Wanthiang in connection with her exhibition at the Young Artists’ Society (UKS) in 2018, she used the term ‘ambiguous design’ to describe her installations. With that, she alluded to a way of designing objects that created a sense of uncertainty about how to relate to them, what their purpose was. Recently, Wanthiang opened the exhibition Jeg har vært her før (I’ve been here before) at Kristiansand Kunsthall, where she explores the aesthetic of attention and the manipulation of our relationship with our surroundings. This direct engagement with the observer presupposes a compact made possible by spaces dedicated to art.

Gideonsson/Londré, Pickled feet, 2020. Courtesy the artists.

Perhaps the most promising among the season’s thematic group shows is Kunsthall Trondheim’s Who Wants to Live Forever? Opening in September, it features a diverse cast of artists including Britta Marakatt-Labba, Mercedes Mühleisen, Swedish duo Gideonsson/Londré, and American artists Adrian Piper and Anton Vidokle. Appropriately, it will revolve around the human longing for immortality. At Trondheim Kunstmuseum Gråmølna, Fadlabi’s exhibition Birds of Metal has already been on view for a while and remains so until October. In the meantime, the museum will open a comprehensive retrospective with one of Norwegian painting’s more established figures, Leonard Rickhard. In the press release, Fadlabi likens his painting to calypso. I don’t know what musical genre would be a fitting analogy for Rickhard’s somber and meticulous imagery – certainly not calypso, but something melancholy, finicky, and cerebral. Both artists, however, share a distinctly narrative approach to the medium.

It is also worth noting that this autumn, Noplace will have its debut as a producer of public art: Juan Andrés Milanés Benito’s Potemkin Village, a close to full scale replica of the entrance to the Museum of Architecture, only disassembled. Unveiled at the end of September, the project is realised by Fellesverkstedet with funds from Bilfritt byliv, an investment in public art from the City of Oslo’s Department of Culture. If the sketches I have seen are representative, it promises to be an intervention that fuses comedy and monument, setting itself apart from the chaste subtlety that characterises the city’s major public art project right now, the Oslo Biennial.

The biennial’s autumn programme will launch in early September, but it is already known that the collective Rose Hammer will plunge into the ‘radio media’ with the play The Radical Flu, inspired by Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947). (Work on the project supposedly started long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.) November will see the arrival of a new episode in Knut Åsdam’s five-year film project Oslo, which disrupts established norms for how the city of Oslo is portrayed on film, and where films are screened in the city: information boards on the subway, a meat market in the Grønland district. Exactly where Åsdam’s fragmented urban realism will pop up this time is anyone’s guess.

Juan Andrés Milanés Benitos and Hans Christian Skovholt, sketch for Potemkinby, 2020.