The Origin of the Artist

‘Did you go to sleep with your dead wife in your lap, father?’ Lene Berg’s Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall pulls no punches.

Arnljot Berg’s desk. One of several photographs Arnljot Berg took for the cover of his novel Nøkkelpersonene (The key persons), published by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag in 1981. Photo: Arnljot Berg Estate.  

Some have used the term “the Thomas function” to describe the phenomenon where our experience of a given work of art increases in intensity as we gradually realise that the horrific things we are being told are true. The concept is named after the disciple Thomas – the doubting one who needed to touch the wounds of Christ to believe that he had risen from the dead – and can be linked to the communication of trauma where the experience of authenticity is strengthened by the unimaginable thing being described: it is true because it is painful. As we step out of Lene Berg’s festival exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall, we may well be hurting in several places. From Father is about her father, the director and author Arnljot Berg, a fierce personality: creative, generous, caring, demanding, impulsive, mentally unstable, and an alcoholic. In 1976, while living in Paris, he was convicted of the negligent manslaughter of his third wife, Evelyne Zammit-Berg. The circumstances surrounding her death were never made completely clear, and he only had to serve out the one year he spent in custody before the trial. Returned to Norway, he took his own life six years later.

Formally, the exhibition is a five-part narrative, a film adapted to a succession of rooms and objects, where each part is clearly defined by the colours used in the given room: green, red, grey, white, and black. Each in their own way, the colours are connected to various themes and motifs. The introduction is green. From there, we can turn left to immerse ourselves in the immediate aftermath of the incident: in the white room, we find the prison institution, but also childhood; in the black one, we find reflections on evil as well as sorrow. To the right, we get to know Arnljot Berg, the man: in the red room, we become acquainted with the filmmaker; in the grey room, we delve into the many different aspects of his personality. It is beautifully done, with excellent sound and light design and clever technical solutions which ensure that our actual exploration of the material is carefully orchestrated and staged without coming across as manipulative.

This is also because, even though the work takes its starting point in actual events, Berg is unmistakably herself: a documentary filmmaker with at least one eye firmly fixed on the constructed nature of truth. Throughout a long career, she has shown how narratives are created, particularly political and ideological ones, and how she has devised her own narratives about such constructs. In a move typical of the artist, From Father opens with a short film, The Day Rises (2022), in which Berg invites us to enter a reconstruction of the scene where her father was found asleep in the car with Evelyne dead in the seat next to him. The reconstruction is done in a miniature format: the façades of the blocks of flats that encircle the scene are pieced together from photographs; the people and the car are figurines. We are shown the assistant blowing smoke to create the illusion of fog and the lamp simulating the glowing morning light. The car is replaced as Berg’s voice-over settles on what kind of make and model it actually was. The film loop is held together by the programmatic declaration: “I wasn’t there, but I remember it.”

Lene Berg, The Day Rises, 2022. Still from video.

On the other hand, Berg’s own introduction to this project is utterly earnest, heartfelt, and existential. She says that her father recently appeared to her and “insisted that you need to do this now, because soon you too will die.” This personal authenticity informs the exhibition as a whole, not least because such large parts of it are based on documentary material, an intimate archive comprising newspaper clippings, her father’s films, his book collection, interviews with his friends, film reels of his movies, drawings done by Lene and her brother Marius when they were children, and letters sent to her father in prison alongside his replies.

The letters are excellent examples of how Berg also uses archival materials to illuminate how reality is constructed. Her father’s letters try to paint a scene of reassuring normality by relating prosaic stories about life in prison, while the young Lene exercises her developing narrative skills to give form and meaning to her own life, as all children do. But the reason for his imprisonment is not alluded to. As the son of a father who travelled much of the time (no other parallels should be inferred!), I recognise the father’s attempts to adapt and convey a reality utterly foreign to the child’s sphere of experience and the child’s radically cheerful and self-absorbed reports from everyday life.

Of course, the “conflict” I outline here between the authentic and the constructed is somewhat trite and actually misleading. In a 1996 discussion of the status of childhood memories as a research object, the anthropologist Marianne Gullestad asserted that to “overcome the polarisation between historical accuracy and poetic truth” must be a firm goal, including for the social sciences. At the same time, the artistic turn that has for the last thirty-odd years placed such emphasis on reality demonstrates that overcoming such polarisation is best done a) by those artists who have an uncompromising grasp of artistic and documentary aspects alike, and b) where the distance between the two approaches creates a tension that makes it possible to express something true.

Arnljot Berg in handcuffs. Section from front page of the french newspaper L’Aurore, February 1975.

A recent example is Tore Vagn Lid and Transiteatret’s theatre work 03.08.38 – States of Emergency (2019), a real-time reconstruction of Norway’s 22 July terrorist attack performed without acting, but through several other art forms. For example, during the performance a model of Utøya is built from papier-mâché using Breivik’s manifesto as raw material. At first, I perceived the action as overly emphatic, but little by little the gravity of the point about the power of words in the political landscape became palpable. In a similar way, Berg’s woven sculptures, made using film reels from her father’s old films, initially struck me as a simple flirtation with media archaeology until a new thought arrived to open up wider vistas: weaving is one of the two essential metaphors we have for imagining a life (landscape is the other). Read in that light, the installation – which creates three-dimensional figures out of film, a medium which unfolds on a flat surface and over time – becomes a compelling monument to an artist who seems to have been entirely engrossed by his work, while at the same time serving as a meta-commentary on how the exhibition renders the film format spatial.

One topic not explicitly commented on in the exhibition concerns how the Arnljot Berg case looks from a sociological point of view. Berg’s guilt was not really at issue during the trial; rather, the main question was whether he committed murder. Viewed from today’s perspective, he received an incredible amount of support from Norwegian elites. The incident was largely described as a “tragedy” in the Norwegian press, and the then-undersecretary of state Thorvald Stoltenberg, the head of the Norwegian Broadcasting Company Torolf Elster, and the historian Hans Fredrik Dahl all made statements in favour of the accused in court. These tangled social connections make occasional appearances in the work, for example, when the artist’s brother Marius, who reads aloud the letters from his father, sounds precisely like Stoltenberg’s son Jens, a former prime minister of Norway and current secretary general of NATO. In any event, the case makes for a fascinating little chapter in the history of the cultural-radical Norwegian establishment.

Much of Berg’s art deals with various conspiracies and crimes – imagined or factual – and their consequences for the nation and the individual, for political and artistic scenes. From Father continues this theme to overwhelming and captivating effect, even as it gives us a startling biographical perspective on this seminal Norwegian artist.

Lene Berg, Prison Letters, 2022. Still from video.

Translated from Norwegian.