Scandinavian welfare is wobbling on unsteady legs these days. Having a full fridge and heating flowing freely into our homes is no longer a given. Our welfare system has come under pressure from both an urgent need to change our relationship with natural resources and a nasty warlord in Russia. Perhaps that is why it was such a relief to explore Oscar Tuazon’s architectural cardboard structures inside Bergen Kunsthall. They make for dark and comfortable hiding places, like badger dens, and actually feel a bit warm and cosy now that the space between me and the soaring ceiling is a few degrees cooler than usual due to high electricity prices.
We scrimp and save and shower at the gym (let them pick up the tab). There, the hot water flows out of the taps as expected, and we are hardly likely to turn our palms upwards and say our thanks for the water. The people of Bergen do not need to get down on our knees and thank Svartediket lake for bringing us high-quality drinking water. Or do we? “I wake up every day and thank the water,” says a member of the Newe tribe from Spring Valley outside Las Vegas in a video featured in Tuazon’s exhibition. I am reminded of a way of thinking where humankind takes up less space than we are used to in the West. Humanity is not the CEO, but a co-worker in the cosmos, and the good things that come to us are to be regarded as gifts from our generous protectors, Mother Earth and Grandfather Sun.
The cardboard houses inside the kunsthall are scaled-down models based on the Zome House (1969–1972) designed by American architects Holly and Steve Baer. These so-called Earthships were made to stand in the desert and utilise passive solar energy. Water runs inside the walls, helping to both heat and cool the house in extreme desert environments where day and night see great differences in temperature. The Baers were, among other things, inspired by another utopian architect, Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), who built spectacular domes and biospheres. Feel free to imagine round domes assembled from triangles, pentagons, or hexagons. Tuazon has used the Baers’ designs to build a series of water schools for the general education and edification of a human race that needs to stop acting as if the earth were a limitless free-for-all buffet set out for our pleasure.
When I think of utopian architecture from the 1960s, I see glass, plastic, and bold colour, but now the future can no longer take the liberty of enticing us with bright colours! The future is taupe like recyclable cardboard or the anonymous wooden boards used to build the water schools in rural America. Surrounding the water school models, which are equipped with built-in benches along the walls – and, in one case, a library full of water-related information – are glass windows decorated with soothing circular patterns. Here we find suns, moons, and planets, and a few portraits of proud Native Americans.
Tuazon’s mentor Lawrence “Ulaaq” Ahvakana has contributed some beautiful wooden masks. Those who regularly stroll in Nordnesparken will know that one of Bergen’s five sister cities is Seattle, and that this is the reason why a ten-metre high totem pole stands in the middle of the park. The recognisable style typical of Native art from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska (where Ahvakana is from) gave me a startling lightbulb moment at some point in the 1990s. Why did this art feel so familiar? Oh, yes: it has a kinship with the art made by the Inuit (who inhabit the Arctic region spanning Greenland, Canada, and Alaska) that I saw as a child at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. What a betrayal to brainwash our young minds with standardised world maps without at the same time instilling in us the cultural interconnectedness of the Arctic.
A long handwritten letter from 1861 by one of Tuazon’s ancestors, an army soldier involved in the forced displacement of Native Americans from the Owens Valley in eastern California, is used as background for drawings displayed in the room surrounding the model of the Great Lakes Water School. The letter is mounted across forty ordinary bathroom mirrors and embellished with circles in the style of the window decorations: holistic shapes reminiscent of planets or eyeballs. The construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct between 1905 and 1907 prompted the California Water Wars. The aqueduct was to supply drinking water to the rapidly growing city, and the water came from the Owens lake. The ecological balance of the Owens Valley was deeply affected by this water theft, and the project met with great resistance from local farmers and Native tribes who tried to protect their environment and their rights. The material is extensive to say the least. Here, demands are placed on the visitor’s ability and willingness to familiarise themselves with historical material.
You would need to be blind not to see the obvious links to current disputes in Norway which also have to do with the use of natural resources and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Norway’s own water war was over the development of hydroelectric power in Inner Finnmark, which led to a long-lasting political conflict between 1968 and 1982. These events have taken on topical relevance again as Ole Giæver’s film Ellos eatnu – Let the River Flow (2023) is in cinemas, helping to shed light on similar cases where Sámi interests are overridden by political decisions. Axel Wieder’s tenure as director of Bergen Kunsthall has seen a clear thematic thread in this regard: the venue has presented a number of exhibitions that address the politics of water and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tuazon is the latest contributor to the essay collection comprising this sequence of exhibitions. “Dense,” I sigh. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”
It is not that Tuazon displays a lack of awareness of form – there is plenty here for the eyes to take in – but it is nevertheless striking to note just how sharp a turn the art scene has taken towards teaching and education. Yes, I feel safe in these cardboard structures. Yes, I have interesting forms to look at, and I have study materials to keep me occupied for many months if I want to be top of the class in the water school. The ideals presented are almost impossible to argue against. Only satanists would object: Why is the future the dull brown of an Amazon cardboard box? Could we have a few more invigorating structures made out of immoral plastic?
What is there for me to do as a critic here? I find myself pitted against an unassailable power-ethical high ground. I am not even being addressed didactically. If that were the case, I could have protested, grown angry, and kicked the cardboard boxes. But this exhibition is pure love. Every day since I visited the exhibition, I have turned on the tap, looked at the flow with a quiet smile, and thanked the water with a gentle namaskar. If there’s anything wrong with this exhibition at all, it’s that nothing is wrong with it.