States of Undress

Presented at Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo, Marthe Ramm Fortun’s obstacle course through the city teases out the prejudices that govern public behaviour.

Marthe Ramm Fortun, Ta vare!, 2019. Photo: Kristine Jakobsen.

Two photographs in Marthe Ramm Fortun’s exhibition Ta vare! (take care!/beware!) at Kunstnerforbundet show the artist herself in the middle of a projection of the infamous portrait from the National Museum of Norway’s press release announcing its collaboration with the Fredriksen sisters. The original image shows the two shipping heiresses posing side by side with the National Museum’s director, Karin Hindsbo, and the director of collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Stina Högkvist. The motif aptly joins Ramm Fortun’s concerns with representational and institutional critique. In projects such as Walk Like a Slanted Archive (2017, Norsk Skulpturbiennale), and Seeing is Changing (2018, Monnaie de Paris), she has delved into the histories of art as social commentary and into the general image of women as falling just a little short of being human. In her performances and readings she gives dramatic form to the encounter between conscious bodies and crumbling institutions.

The pictures appear to have been taken in an office at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, where Ramm Fortun acts as dean of the Academy of Fine Art. In one image, the artist leaps up into the air with hands raised towards the ceiling, in the other she holds a framed portrait photograph of Christian Krohg while jumping stiffly up off the floor, making it appear as if she is levitating. Ramm Fortun’s naked body is crowbarred in between the polished fear of death emanating from the cosmetically augmented sisters on the one hand, and the sober staging of Norwegian art’s grand old man as a dedicated practitioner of his profession on the other. Krohg was the first director of the Oslo Academy of Fine Art, a champion of realism in painting, and author of the socially critical, prostitution-themed novel Albertine from 1886. As both a bohemian and a pillar of the community, he embodied a paradoxical blend of roles similar to Ramm Fortun’s, who combines her role as dean with that of a performance artist prone to undress.

A golden substance has been applied to the blonde wooden frames of the photographs, like from a hand grasping. Similar traces can be found on the other objects in the room. Is this a gilt version of the “female ejaculation across the boardroom floor” evoked in one of the titles of the works on display, wiped off on sculptures and frames? Excretions become abject when they appear in the wrong place at the wrong time. The orifices of the female body have been regarded as a source of uncontrollable leaks, manifesting as bodily fluids, babbling and offspring. Some dried flowers set in a metal ring on the wall have been blessed with the golden ejaculation too. They are reminiscent of the bouquet of Manet’s Olympia – a figure Ramm Fortun previously has referenced through poses in her performances – and the outrage the painting caused in its day, precisely due to the representation of bodies in the wrong place.

Throughout the exhibition period, Ramm Fortun leaves her dean’s office every day from Tuesday to Friday and sets out for Kunstnerforbundet, where she reads the exhibition text for Ta vare! aloud. The readings start as the bells of the city hall tower sound out at 15:30. The artist announces herself in various ways: she may throw an apple at the gallery window from the outside, or divest herself of her coat and bag in the middle of the room. Ramm Fortun’s text conjures up spraying arches of milk, blood, semen and female ejaculations. The arch figure is preserved in a welded steel structure mounted on a mottled pink and grey granite slab. A wooden shelf pierced by a pearl earring is attached to the steel structure. On the shelf sits a laptop with two windows open, each playing a video clip of the artist performing parts of the text. A steel pipe protrudes from the other side of the sculpture, a red apple speared on its tip.

Marthe Ramm Fortun, Ta vare!, 2019. Photo: Thomas Tveter.

At one point during the reading, the artist leaps up into her own sculpture as if it were a piece of gym equipment. She tries to get hold of a transverse metal bar, but fails. She tries again, this time with help from the audience. Having successfully reached the bar, she swings back and forth as she half-shouts, half-sings “Ding! Dang! Dong!” in time with the video’s audio track. The athletic session continues outdoors, where the artist interprets the area between Kunstnerforbundet and the eastern corner of Oslo City Hall – home to Alfred Seland’s relief of Albertine – as an obstacle course. Ramm Fortun takes garments on and off while interacting with everything from fountains and fences to garbage bags, retail premises and café tables. She constantly interrupts helrself and makes comments, negotiates with security guards and turns to passersby. The route she carves out across, between, in, and under things strewn across the public space of our late-capitalist, social-democratic welfare society, subtly demonstrates that navigating here is not so easy.

The use of undressing as an artistic device may seem vapid and threadbare, but it obviously retains the power to provoke. The city hall guards resort to a range of arguments in an attempt to stop her performance; she is attracting a lot of attention, an undefined ‘someone’ might take offense, and there are children present. The reactions reveal the double standards infusing our public space, where bodies in states of undress proliferate, but a naked body neither preened for commercial use nor belonging to the archaic, symbolic world of bronze sculpture, is defined as obscene.

Although calculated for effect, Ramm Fortun’s unabashed self-exposure also calls attention to the vulnerability of individual bodies. Forebears such as Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann confronted the gulf between the historically governed representation of the female body and women’s experience of inhabiting such bodies, injecting a devil-may-care attitude into the barriers that surround your life and work when you belong to one or more categories of otherness. The Albertine figure at the Oslo City Hall reminds us of the differences that lurk beneath the surface of our ostensibly egalitarian society, pointing out that equality is never won once and for all. Ramm Fortun’s recurring performance builds a daily practice that calls out to us, warning us that in the midst of everyday chores we must continue to ‘take care’, seek to associate with our peers and allies, put aside idle pastimes and rediscover how restrictions are imposed upon the world and upon what is considered acceptable, every single day.

Marthe Ramm Fortun, Ta vare!, 2019. Photo: Kristine Jakobsen.