Music can be many things, right?

With such wide-ranging ambitions I Wish This Was A Song at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo almost had to become a very varied affair. Which is fine when you deliver – as this exhibition does.

Tori Wrånes, The Opposite is also True 2, Statoil Art Award, Kunstnernes Hus 2011. Photo: Mikkel McAlinden.

Now, let’s see… This is going to be about at least three different things. Let us adopt a positive, optimistic tone; that will allow me to sneak in some critical questions as we go.

I Wish This Was A Song is by no means a bad way to spend an afternoon. First and foremost because the exhibition is so very extensive, and because so many of the individual artworks are compelling – there is a lot of good stuff here. In view of the deep, crushing hopelessness I have sometimes felt lately upon crossing the threshold of The Museum of Contemporary Art, this is a relief in itself.

There are also some works that strictly speaking do not belong here. And given the ambition inherent in the exhibition’s subheading (“Music in Contemporary Art”) you might easily wonder whether this is not yet another of those vague exhibition concepts where everything can be incorporated without causing any friction. What we can certainly ascertain is that in our present day music (and literature) is an important part of the foundations on which many active visual artists work. They are not just references, but embedded in their foundations, and are frequently quite natural components of their art.

Fikret Atay, Tinica, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Video still.

The question is whether you can avoid becoming lost in a landscape where the overall concept gradually goes bust due to the wildly extensive nature of the theme.  I would not have been surprised if we had also been presented with abstract, “musical” painting. There is, however, very little abstract painting in sight here, and this remark should not be regarded as a criticism against the exhibition per se – after all, most of the exhibits are explicitly about music in some form or another. Indeed, it is the broad scope of the exhibition I am challenging, really: would it not make more sense to focus more narrowly on a specific type of music with its attendant subculture/infrastructure/scene? Black Metal, for example, even though that subject might be a little bothersome and outdated in this context. Black Metal is the most striking fundamental experience for the generation of artists who have now passed the age of 30, but here the genre is neither represented nor even mentioned, even though it can only be regarded as a more or less constant force within – certainly Norwegian – contemporary art over the last decade. Or let us take noise – an expression that has been relevant to very many artists during that same period. This genre, too, is also not represented to any great extent. Such criticism may be marginal, for indeed you can take all sorts of approaches to the exhibition theme, and with such wide-ranging ambitions I Wish This Was A Song would quite inevitably become a very varied affair. Which is fine when you deliver the goods – as this exhibition does – even though it also leaves you with a slightly sickening sensation of didactic planning; a sensibility that has been generally associated with this institution in recent years. There have been a number of exhibitions that pursue themes which have proven, upon closer inspection, rather washed-out regardless of whether the  supposed theme was «drawing», «installation» or – and this one still pains me – «science fiction». These exhibitions have been lukewarm and non-committal presentations of bits and bobs from the storage facilities combined with borrowed works from artists someone happed to meet at a seminar or see in Venice.


I Wish This Was A Song at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo. Photo: Børre Høstland/ Nasjonalmuseet.

I Wish This Was A Song is better than that. Of course, Chinese water torture would be preferable to the examples mentioned above, so perhaps that doesn’t really tell us much. However, the exhibition works as it should when you slouch past a replica of Jim Morrison’s tombstone, the year 1977 – so crucial to some of us – embossed on a canvas, and that fucking tree which stood in the way of Marc Bolan’s car, complete with floral wreaths, messages, and eulogies. Here you will also find Rodney Graham’s reconstruction of an iconic photograph of Black Sabbath from the very early 1970s and Fikret Atay drumming on percussion instruments from the garbage heap (I believe I saw it in Gothenburg as far back as 2004, but let’s be fair – it’s a good video). We recognise Tom Sandberg’s long-since iconic portrait of John Cage and leftovers and documentation relating to performance works by Tori Wrånes executed in other places. Of course the exhibition has set aside space for sound installations of various kinds. And there is a small library and archive of the angry women of avant-garde rock. It goes on like that. Music is either performed, referred to, mythologised, or archived. The approaches are about as many in number as the participating artists – and they are plentiful. This would usually be a problem, but here it turns out to be an advantage despite the slightly vague point of departure. After all, music can be many things, right?  

Translation from the Norwegian by René Lauritsen.