Red Face, Black Heart

Experiences of Oil at Stavanger Art Museum is infused by a sense – all too familiar in Norway – of a polite reluctance to act.

Otobong Nkanga, Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na, 2020. Installation view. Photo: Markus Johansson/Stavanger kunstmuseum, MUST.

The voices around me rise and fall in intensity and strength. They mumble, speak, shout angrily, scream hysterically, sing. I know my face is bright red. The room in which I’m sitting is is a kind of red cube – containing only red light, dark walls, a velvety red carpet (probably some kind of petroleum-based product), some scattered dark cubes to sit on, and small black speakers mounted on the walls. The voices are easily identified as those of African women based on the accent, rhythm and singing style, accompanied by finger snapping, clapping, and clicking sounds. “We are the new structure,” they say. “I can’t breathe, I feel stuck.” “Is this the end?”

After seeing the exhibition Experiences of Oil at the Stavanger Art Museum, this room featuring Otobong Nkanga’s installation Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na (2020) has been the one place my mind has returned to with particular frequency. On the one hand, Nkanga expresses a polyphonic frustration and resistance – even though what we hear is in fact only her own voice, multiplied. On the other hand, the voices echo in a space that is perceived as being outside the world, an isolated and almost fictional place with only an obscure connection to the wider community beyond. Can what is articulated in Nkanga’s installation have any effect on its surroundings, in this case the oil city of Stavanger? It seems unlikely.

Screaming inside the Stavanger Art Museum is like screaming into a pillow. While this is a problem that can be said to apply to art institutions in general, the feeling that all protest is futile is reinforced by the fact that the exhibition Experiences of Oil, curated by Anne Szefer Karlsen and Helga Nyman, seems to harbour no ambitions of changing anything. As part of a wider-ranging research project on oil in the arts – a conference of the same name has already been held, and a book release is expected in April – the exhibition has no clear climate agenda. The term “climate crisis” does not even appear in the curators’ presentation, and although they state a desire to “challenge our own self-understanding and role in an urgent, global situation,” I find little evidence of this actually happening. Their approach to the overall topic – oil – seems purely observational, a non-activist curatorial strategy that has mostly been met with acclaim. But is it truly possible to create an apolitical exhibition about oil in the midst of the ongoing climate crisis, and, not least, in the middle of Stavanger, the Norwegian oil industry’s stronghold?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siri, Dilbar, 2013. Video intallation. Photo: Markus Johansson/Stavanger kunstmuseum, MUST.

Let us nip any misunderstandings in the bud: Experiences of Oil is a very worthwhile exhibition, presenting a selection of artistically strong individual works, some of which take a critical stance. For example, the captivating installation of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siri’s short film Dilbar (2013) is in itself well worth the trip. But it feels as if the experience-focused, “neutral” curatorial framework simultaneously expects and creates a sense – all-too-familiar in Norway – of a polite reluctance to act. The curators’ position confirms my impression of a general unwillingness within the Norwegian art field to stand up to the country’s oil industry – whether due to a sense of pervasive complicity, a fear of potential adverse consequences to one’s career, a genuine lack of concern, or a general resistance against being pigeonholed as an activist.

A central idea underpinning the exhibition is the notion of exploring a possible “affective neighbourhood” between the world’s oil nations, regardless of their geographical location. In itself a lovely idea, this notion has given rise to an international exhibition with participants from countries not often featured in group exhibitions in Norway, at least not in the same group exhibition; Nigeria, Trinidad, India, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Australia are all represented. But the claims regarding a shared destiny remain vague, and despite an awareness of the colonial structures that form the basis of the oil industry, the curatorial concept seems to suggest that we are all – through our mutual dependence on oil – in the same boat.

Rachel O’Reilly, Infractions, 2019. Still from video.

One of the strongest works in the exhibition is Rachel O’Reilly’s documentary piece Infractions (2019), which addresses the gas industry and its impact on nature and the Indigenous People of Australia. The film highlights the huge differences to be found in various perceptions of the oil industry, depending on whether one profits from it or not. O’Reilly documents how Indigenous Australians are forced out of their territories and exploited as cheap labour, how ecosystems are destroyed, and how culturally important songlines (paths in the landscape used as navigational points for passing on oral knowledge and narratives) are disrupted.

The question of what kind of “neighbourly” relationship the exhibition offers the artists and activists interviewed in this film springs to mind. There are no other Indigenous Peoples – and indeed no other activists – anywhere to be found in Experiences of Oil, and none of the other works speak as specifically about the causes of the climate crisis. Similarly, I should have liked to see evidence of an awareness of how Norway is also involved in the type of modern colonialism depicted in the film. Speaking of Australia, it was only massive opposition from environmental activists locally and internationally – protesting under the slogan “No way, Norway” – that, in 2020, made Equinor abandon its plans to drill for oil near the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef area, on the northeast coast of Australia. If the exhibition truly wished to explore the neighbourly oil-related relations between Norway and Australia, surely a similarly stern eye ought to have been directed at the Norwegian oil and gas industry? Instead, the most critical gaze in the exhibition is, comfortably enough, cast about as far away from Norway as it can possibly get.

Ane Graff, The Cardiovascular System, 2020. Photo: Markus Johansson/Stavanger kunstmuseum, MUST.

The gallery next to Infractions is home to Ane Graff’s sculptures The Gut-Brain Axis and The Cardiovascular System (both 2020), placed on two stalactite-like granite plinths. Shaped like an open book, the former is a crystal-like mass of glittering greys which, according to the materials listed, is made partly of road dust from the Opera Tunnel in Oslo and partly of the books How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (2015) by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu and The Betty Crocker Big Book of Cupcakes (2011). The second sculpture is a twisted bottle containing a light pink, synthetic-looking liquid reminiscent of a beauty product or detergent. Or perhaps a pink oil? At any rate, the list of ingredients includes a petroleum-based product. The titles of the works suggest a direct relationship with the human body, as if these sculptures represent internal systems. Graff’s works are subtle and quiet, occupying a very different place than O’Reilly’s film in terms of aesthetics. They seem more akin to Monira Al Qadiri’s small and colourful 3D-printed plastic sculptures that are reminiscent of the drill heads on display at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum on the other side of town. Magnets keep the sculptures hovering and turning slowly around and around a few inches above their pedestals, drilling upward into the air as if they could extract something invisible from it.

Monira Al Qadiri, OR-BIT 1-6, 2016-2018. Photo: Markus Johansson/Stavanger kunstmuseum, MUST.

Several of the participating artists use oil products such as polyester and other types of plastic as material for their art. One of Kiyoshi Yamamoto’s contributions is a work consisting of four coils of synthetic ropes in different thicknesses and bold colours, named after the ‘values’ of Equinor’s operations in Brazil: Openness, Passion, Partnership, and Resolution. The audience is encouraged to cut off pieces of the slippery ropes to tie a “friendship bracelet” using so-called sliding knots. It’s safe to assume that few people in Norway are aware that Equinor is in fact the second largest oil operator in Brazil, and in that sense the work helps to raise awareness. Yamamoto’s other contribution Fantasia, descoberta e aprendizagem (Imagination, discovery, and learning, 2021) consists of seemingly identical draperies hanging from the ceiling in two groups facing each other. Half of the synthetic yellow and blue substances are said to bear the marks of having been used in a staged protest outside the headquarters of the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, indirectly representing the kind of resistance that is otherwise largely absent from the exhibition.

Kiyoshi Yamamoto, Fantasia, descoberta e aprendizagem, 2021. Photo: Markus Johansson/Stavanger kunstmuseum, MUST.

Shirin Sabahi’s film Mouthful (2018) dwells, with obvious fascination, on the dark engine oil used in Noriyuki Haraguchi’s artwork Matter and Mind (1977), a rectangular pool of oil permanently installed in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, originally built on oil money. The film follows the restoration of the work and conversations between workers and with Haraguchi himself. Shown alongside the film, the installation Pocket Folklore (2018) comprises display cases containing small items found in the pool during its restoration – everything from coins to shells, corks, cigarette butts, candy, keys, and paper clips. The small objects convey a sense of nostalgia, as if they were archaeological finds from a bygone era, and the film also makes it clear that the general perception of Haraguchi’s work and the museum it inhabits is different today than when it was inaugurated.

While the search for oil began in the early 1960s in Norway, the oil industry’s early beginnings took place in Trinidad all the way back in 1857. The connection between the exploitation of natural resources and the exploitation of human resources finds poignant expression in Christopher Cozier’s installation turbulence (2019–2021), which portrays the history of the oil industry in Trinidad. A number of drawings, mainly done in black ink on paper, are mounted in three large panels that appear to be incomplete given that number of panes are “missing.” In Cozier’s drawings, black oil is mixed with Black bodies, cascades of black handwriting, and what look like dark planets and cosmic forces forming dramatic vortices. In one place, a lone arm stretches upwards searchingly, as if belonging to a drowning person.

Christopher Cozier, turbulence, 2019-2021. Photo: Markus Johansson/Stavanger kunstmuseum, MUST.

The close connection between body and oil in Cozier’s work forms a contrast to Liv Bugge’s Goliath, Draugen & Maria (2021), which takes its starting point in a perceived distance from oil as physical reality. Just as oil is perceived as “hidden” in the Norwegian welfare society, the film hides behind three sculptures that mimic the topology of the seabed in the Norwegian oil fields mentioned in the project title. The sculptures – one of which is presented inside the museum, with the other two placed out in the city – can be scanned using a mobile app that gives access to the film, in which we encounter a group of people exploring crude oil with their hands – feeling it, studying it, smelling it. The soundtrack is a voiceover, while the footage of the group is interspersed with old archival footage from the oil industry. Their conversation about oil is meditative, introspective, and philosophical; oil is referred to as part of our identity, as something sacred, associated with our ancestors. One of the participants in the film says that the oil makes her cry, without her being able to explain why. Another asks how we can be so complacent in Norway, concluding that this is because it is impossible for us to think outside the oil. The film also describes the violence of the extraction process itself and talks about the seawater and the organisms living in it being pumped into the wells as a replacement for the oil that is pumped up.

The exhibition in Stavanger opened the same weekend as the climate change conference COP26 kicked off in Glasgow, where the Norwegian authorities, led by Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, were busy maintaining a self-image as suppliers of the world’s purest, most democratic oil (in contrast to the dirty dictatorship oil from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia). Recently, the government has granted fifty-three new licenses for oil exploration, opting for business as usual instead of taking on the consequences of the climate crisis. But climate scientists, for example those on the UN Climate Panel, make no distinction between “clean” and “dirty” oil when they say that the age of oil must be brought to an end, and that it is urgent. Regardless of how interesting the topic of oil as the basis of modern society may be, in this context, I perceive the conflict-averse approach that informs the curation of Experiences of Oil as claustrophobic and problematic.

Liv Bugge, Goliat, Draugen & Maria, 2021. Still from video. Photo: Marte Vold.