First things first: Silent Revolt is a good art exhibition. Maybe even very good. Perhaps not all the art on display is equally good, and perhaps one might quibble about certain approaches. But let us begin by focusing on why this is a good art exhibition. Its subtitle is “Norwegian process and conceptual art from the 1970s and 80s”, and the entire presentation is clearly infused by profound professional expertise, careful research into quite obscure and inaccessible art historical archives, as well as by a genuine enthusiasm and love of the material it presents to visitors.
In a way, Silent Revolt can be regarded as a breath of fresh air at a time when institution exhibitions in Norway are often surrounded by (public?) discussions that focus on the number of visitors attracted, party planners, event culture, artists’ fees and/or blockbuster names. It would also seem that this exhibition is not concerned with illustrating specific contemporary fashions within aesthetics, curating or theory.
Happily, Silent Revolt is something else: a traditional art historical exhibition. More than anything, it seems to spring directly from research conducted by the museum’s new curator Ingvild Krogvig (this is her first exhibition; many may recall her as former editor of Kunstkritikk) in her 2009 MFA thesis from the University of Oslo: “Konseptkunst på norsk – en undersøkelse av Bård Breivik, Gerhard Stoltz, Viggo Andersen og Marianne Heskes konseptuelle strategier i perioden 1970–1982” (Conceptual Art in Norwegian – a study of the conceptual strategies of Bård Breivik, Gerhard Stoltz, Viggo Andersen and Marianne Heske from 1970 to 1982). The outline for this thesis was approved as far back as 2003, which means that the exhibition is firmly based on almost fifteen years of professional art historical interest.
It is true that quite a lot of names have been added to those of Breivik, Stoltz, Andersen and Heske: Ingrid Book, Paul Brand, Oddvar I.N. Daren, Carina Hedén, Inghild Karlsen, Terje Munthe, Lars Paalgaard, Bente Stokke, Audun Sørsdal and Gerd Tinglum. It would seem that the intention is to fill in a sorely felt vacuum in Norwegian art history writing: a forgotten, little known or even suppressed conceptual and process art scene.
Silent Revolt covers an important period in art history. The earliest work presented is a student project executed by a 22-year-old Bård Breivik in 1970 at Saint Martins in London. At this point in time Breivik’s teachers included British artist Richard Long, and Long’s influence is clearly evident in this enchanting work: a white dotted line made out of snowballs placed on bare pine tree trunks somewhere far out in the forest of Stord. With Breivik’s long-gone snowballs as the earliest work in the exhibition, there is certainly quite a step ahead in time to the most recent works – and not just in time, but also in terms of the social, societal and art institutional framework within which the works were created.
Bente Stokke’s Bibliotek (Library) was created twenty years later, in 1990. It was commissioned for the opening of the Norwegian Museum of Contemporary Art (Museet for samtidskunst). The work may have marked the Norwegian art institution’s final acceptance of process art. However, the work also signals the end of an era. Today, this shift seems more clearly demarcated in history than ever. Many hold the view that the “contemporary” era began around 1989: the time when the Berlin wall fell, when the Cold War ceased and the first age of the yuppie collapsed. Here in Norway, the change was marked by the opening of the new museum.
The ferocity of “wild” 1980s painting was also brought to a halt at this point in time, and there are many tales and myths about skyrocketing, then plummeting prices on Norwegian paintings and of vast, valueless stores of art at banks, insurance companies and so on. Bente Stokke’s empty gallery space in an abandoned office in an ancient bank building can, then, be read allegorically. The contemporary era began here. It may be that now, in 2016, the era ends with the very same work, and the museum moves on. Things have come full circle.
This is to say that the exhibition spans the full range from unknown juvenile works to acclaimed and instantly canonised installation works. In this case, the canonisation was effected by the museum’s director at the time, Jan Brockmann, and his highly Heidegger-influenced reading in connection with the group exhibition Terskel II (Threshold II). Here, Stokke’s empty room was described as “memory images” of “the presence of absence”.
Stokke’s own description of her work can in a way be described as emblematic for many of the works in Silent Revolt. “[It] exists in an eternal present, a frozen moment that encompasses all time and no time.”
Unlike their American predecessors and role models from the 1960s and 1970s, almost all the works featured in Silent Revolt are infused by this kind of poetic and wistful approach. Just look at the fancifully imaginative use of material and existential titles such as Subjektivt/Objektivt, Bevisst/Ubevisst (Subjective/Objective, Conscious/Subconscious) (Gerd Tinglum, 1977–79), Mot sort (Towards Black) (Audun Sørsdal, 1982), and Mugne brød (Mouldy Bread) (Breivik, 1971/74). Mentioning this is in no way intended to strip these works of their artistic qualities and capacities, but rather to emphasise that much Norwegian process art and conceptual art seems to be founded on traditional psychological issues rather than on an analytical-intellectual position. One might say that Norwegian conceptual art is more humanistic than its American and international role models and predecessors. This dissonance is interesting and thought-provoking at both the theoretical and empirical levels.
Several of the works that reach beyond this are, like Stokke’s Bibliotek (Library), on the threshold of the contemporary, for example Inghild Karlsen’s Pustende ballong (Breathing Balloon) from 1988–89. A huge plastic balloon (standing 3.6 metres tall) covered by felted wool. Here, too, the dichotomy between the artificial and the natural is present: inorganic plastic materials and breathing, traditional felt. Krogvig states that this sphere covered in felt can conjure up a wealth of associations, ranging from a post-apocalyptic planet to something intimately physical and tactile, becoming more intimate the closer you are. The work was included when Karlsen was a featured artist at the 1989 festival in Harstad: on that occasion it was rowed out onto the fjord in a small rowing boat in what was almost a National Romantic staging. An earth-coloured sphere recklessly transported out onto a picturesque fjord. One could almost picture a bridal procession that looked like this, only in this case with an eco-centric object as the main motif – and today one might also envisage one of the more outré characters from the HBO series Vikings rowing up the fjord with this peculiar catch. Alien, as if from another world, from the future, yet deeply anchored in its own soil and culture.
Odvar I.N. Daren, Lars Paalgaard and Terje Munthe’s Kile (Wedge) from 1985 consists of a number of planks arranged around a large boulder between two rocks on the beach in order to create the impression that those planks keep it wedged in place. Daren and his fellow artists wanted to turn their back on the audience, as it were, presenting art outside the institutions and in a transient, temporary context. At the same time we may say that the black-and-white documentation presented at Silent Revolt is more than mere documentation: they are also very pleasant and well-composed aesthetic images and objects.
Silent Revolt offers a thorough presentation of an important aspect of recent Norwegian art history. And it is presented with laudable curatorial enthusiasm. It shows early, forgotten and lost works alongside works that have demonstrated considerable longevity in the public eye and in the institutions. Even so, the works and the artists are presented in a partly antagonistic manner, as an ignored or even suppressed aspect of Norwegian art history. It seems reasonable to wonder at this fact: why are all these works presented as antagonistic to other Norwegian art from the same period – and, very importantly, to radical left-wing art in general? Is there no common ground, no point of contact? Only antagonisms and internal censorship?
In the invitation for the seminar Kartet og terrenget (the map and the terrain) arranged in connection with Silent Revolt (8 June), Nasjonalmuseet goes straight for the jugular*: the text states that while literary figures have had to apologise for their failed infatuation with totalitarian left-wing regimes, artists have not been confronted with their “connections to a totalitarian movement” to nearly the same extent. Ingvild Krogvig uses, as she has before, the artist Anders Kjær’s statement about how the Gras group acted as “an advertising agency for the Worker’s Communist Party/the Marxist-Leninist movement” to place conceptual art within its historical context. There is something jarring about this.
First of all: The Gras group was active in 1968–70 (plus in 1973), which means that it largely falls outside of the historical period addressed by Silent Revolt. Most of the works are in fact from the 1980s, several of them from the late 1980s, and one might equally well claim that market favourites such as Knut Rose or rising stars such as Olav Christopher Jenssen drew much attention away from the more experimental and explorative kind of conceptual art documented here. Why should the art gathered here be used as kind of excuse for subjecting an entirely different part of the Norwegian art scene to a kind of posthumous trial?
Insofar as we can find any fault with the otherwise serious and thorough work behind Silent Revolt, it would be this fierce antagonism against Gras and other politically committed art. The depiction of conceptual art as having been suppressed by Communist censorship on the Norwegian art scene is needlessly paranoid in a splendid, educational exhibition such as this.
*Kunstkritikk is quoting from the invitation for the seminar originally scheduled for 7 April. The seminar was subsequently postponed until 8 June, and the Nasjonalmuseet sent out a new, revised invitation on 31 May.