The Actually Actual

Haus der Kunst is a bit of a time suspend in Oslo, an enclave where the beer is cheap and unending, and the small things like smoking inside actually mean something.

All images from the opening night of Kate Samson’s exhibition, You kill time, like mosquitoes, 2019, at Haus der Kunst, Oslo. Photos by the author.

Last week, both my editor and my fluffy bunny, as if in cahoots with each other, made me feel dejected and losery. My editor turned down my first column, which was about a 90s cult film and which I wrote because it summoned itself into my brain when I sat down to write. This is the way writing goes, whether one likes it or not. He told me to toss it and give him something new, something that I could relate to the Nordic art world or art in general. The sentence rang between my ears like a ding-dong that someone else should answer. To make things worse, bunny, whom I love dearly, looked at me with those angry accusing eyes: he’s fed up with me being so “self-absorbed” and thinks that I don’t actually do anything. “You people are all the same.”

As a novice columnist, I don’t really know what I’m doing. However, a lucky encounter took place when, in the midst of my conundrum, I bumped into the illustrious writer and critic Jan Verwoert. I excitedly told him about my problem. He understood immediately and said without hesitation, “A-ha, yes, it’s because magazines are interested in relevance.” A few years back, as I began writing what one might call journalism here in Norway, mostly for the necessity of earning some money, I started hearing about this word “aktuell” from other writers and editors. Subjects and stories should be “aktuelle”: they should be current and relevant.

Stemming from French, actuel (English: actual) comes from “real, existing” (as opposed to potential, ideal, etc.). Newspapers, magazines, periodicals, and such are the propagators of the real and existing that is related to a certain periodicity a.k.a. now, and the circulation of relevance for the now or the recent now. Kunstkritikk in particular calls itself a “tidsskrift,” which translated literally, means “time-writing”; it is a periodical that is a reflection of our actual time. And although my editor didn’t reject my first writing attempt on the basis of “un-aktuell-ity,” my take on a 90s film by the American director Harmony Korine is, for Kunstkritikk, and probably mostly everyone, totally and completely irrelevant.

Bunny and I were just chatting. He says, quoting someone much wiser, and likely even more self-absorbed than myself, that it is impossible to think outside of the mind. “It could follow then,” bunny says, “that it is also impossible to write outside of time, as you are made of the time you find yourself in.”

“I am bunny, I am time-fluffying. You, Agatha, are just covered in ‘aktuell’. You are the most real and time-existing actually actual you in the Nordic art world.” He winks. “So you yourself are time-writing,” he finishes.

So, to undo everything I just wrote, according to bunny, I cannot do irrelevant writing. It is just not possible. I decide that I think bunny is right. I am “tidsskrift,” I am time-writing.

With this new realisation in mind, I get to work. I am intent on showing bunny that I do do things. I sit down to initiate the doing of something. But what should I write about? I am on the fourth floor of the Hausmania building in Oslo. Hausmania being the old town squat with a fascinating history which I neither know nor dare to retell. Inside this eyesore of a building, covered in the typical squat aesthetics of the downtrodden kids variety, are housed artists studios, a theatre, a couple of bars, artist-run spaces, and weird little nooks and crannies branching off hallways that lead god knows where. I am in my friend and artist Karen Gimle’s studio. A couple of her beautiful dark photographs are mounted on the walls. She has generously lent me some desk space until I find a more permanent studio. While I work, a piercing blue-eyed husky with a sweet demeanour sleeps across from me.

On the fourth floor, I sit and think about tidsskrifting. I look out the window and across the courtyard where I can see the full-floor studio of educator and artist Vilde von Krogh; off in the distance, a chimney is spitting out smoke stacks from the Freia chocolate factory.

As I am nearing a subject for this text, I realise I can do no better than the gem that has already landed in my lap! Because inside Hausmania, two floors down, there is another “haus” that goes by the name of Haus der Kunst, an art space run by artists Eirik Sæther and Calle Segelberg. They started it in July, first as a bar, and then transformed it into a gallery in August of this year.

Once decided – and succumbing to a feeling of can-do-ness – I text Eirik, and he tells me they are having an opening. He also invites me to their artist dinner where they will serve moules frites. I first met Eirik back in 2007 in Tokyo, of all places. In a previous life, I ran an artist-made art fair there with some friends, and Eirik came because he was part of an Oslo space called Willy Wonka Inc. I recall that Eirik showed up wearing the most exemplary gallerist attire: a blue blazer, white button-down shirt, blue jeans, and brown dress shoes; he pulled off very well an exquisite douchebag look. He introduced himself to me as the gallery director. It wasn’t until days later that I found out he was the gallery intern and that his getup was a costume. Calle and I studied together at The Academy of Fine Art in Oslo. He was one of my favourites, with his frayed T-shirts and worn-out sneakers; I liked his anachronistic 90s vibe. I used to tell him, probably to his annoyance, that he should be in the band Ween.

I mistakenly thought the dinner was the same evening, and caught the boys mid-installation. Eirik was behind the bar on his laptop making the flyer, and Calle was stretching canvases on the floor with the artist Kate Sansom, who was in town from Berlin. Calle, in his signature perv-cute way says to Kate, “everyone says I don’t stretch hard enough!” Kate: “You need to stretch harder.”

She informs me that there had been a deviation from the original plan, which was to show her long brown-shiny paintings unstretched. But as they resembled, at least formally, the previous show’s hanging works by Ellie de Verdier, a friend of Kate’s, she and Calle were now cutting smaller panels off them and stretching. Unknowingly, both artists had dreamt up works of similar scale and hung them alike – a beautiful nod to the substance from which we pull. I would have left them as they were. Nevertheless, the paintings looked good both ways.

Two days later, it is Friday and opening night. I am sick, but bent on going back to do the doing things. I spend the day semi-waiting for 18:00, yet still manage to arrive thirty minutes late. I walk downstairs through a hallway with a dusty piano, a wreckage of books, and other garbology, arriving at the door with the handwritten Haus der Kunst. I walk into an acoustic version of ‘Hello Mary Lou’, which makes me immediately happy. Around the tiny studio converted into an art space, a few friends and other familiar faces are standing: three women (including myself), nine men, and a dog. The beer has not yet kicked in, so the mood is jovial but restrained. There is a strong smell of frying oil with notes of turpentine from the oil paintings. Calle is wearing his best beat-down-by-life-gallerist suit jacket, and Eirik is behind the bar in control of the music, a samurai sword from a previous show above his head. Eirik’s look is a kind of an extra-faded version of Ed Hardy, complete with baseball cap, flannel shirt, gold chain, and jeans. When I ask him his inspo for the look, he says something which I can’t make out, except the last words which are “soy boy.”

There is a rigged cooking station by the window. I ask Calle why moules frites in the middle of Oslo November, and he tells me, “a recent trip to Paris, it’s so inspiring, the city of love!” Thanks to a piece of wood that has been secured in the window frame, the entire pot of boiling oil will not fall two flights down onto someone’s head. A man and apparent expert on frying tells me enthusiastically about the two-fry process for the best french fries: once to get them spongy and twice to get them crunchy.

Whether it is for the cooking fumes, or for the barrage of indoors smoking that will soon arrive with a hoard of young lungs, Eirik climbs a chair and covers the fire alarm with tape and plastic, teetering on his toes on a bar chair that is itself teetering. Elegantly, he jumps off.

The artist, is not yet present. I start thinking about how I’m late to a “julebord,” aka Christmas dinner, for my other job. I am searching for something I am unsure I want. To be a journalist, perhaps. Journalists assign subjects, and subjects, I imagine, acknowledge their subject-ness. But here, we all behave like faux versions of those things. When I ask Eirik about the paintings, he points me to the press release. I don’t read it. It is obvious that he doesn’t want to give me that which I don’t really want. In our roles as gallerist and journalist, we actually suck.

I don’t know how the night ended at Haus der Kunst, because soon after Kate showed up, I had to run. From previous nights, I am sure a lot more people showed up. Their phones buzzing as friends downstairs wait to be let in, they will have passed the garbage piano again and again on their way to the bathroom to address matters of the night. No one will have been able to see the art, which is fine, and everyone knows that. More foes will have also shown up; they will have made friends again, and continued the night for the next forty-eight hours.

Haus der Kunst is a bit of a time suspend in Oslo, an enclave where the beer is cheap and unending, and the small things like smoking inside actually mean something. And where everyone looks gorgeous in dim lighting, and that means something too.

From Kate Samson’s exhibition, You kill time, like mosquitoes, 2019. Photo: Haus der Kunst.