The anniversary of Norwegian universal suffrage in 2013 and the International Women’s Day on 8 March offered a dual occasion for Kunsthall Oslo and UKS (The Young Artists’ Society) to thematize gender debate and the women’s struggle. In purely ideological terms the two exhibitions Hold stenhårdt fast på greia di – Norwegian art and feminism 1968-89, and Possessions respectively represent a traditional feminist struggle for women’s rights and a more current queer struggle to break down the strict dividing lines between the genders. This generates two very different curatorial perspectives, but overall, the exhibitions still produce a picture of a unified historical-political project.
Remarkably, Hold stenhårdt fast på greia di (approximately Hold On To Your Thing) at Kunsthall Oslo, curated by Elise Storsveen, Eline Mugaas and Kunsthall Oslo, is, according to the Kunsthall, the first major group exhibition about the Norwegian women’s struggle in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It is at all events the most unified presentation I can remember seeing in this country, so the curators should be acclaimed for this initiative.
The exhibition has become a paradoxical mix of the exuberant and the frugal, with the main emphasis on the many visual and informative attempts to educate the public in the 1970s. It consists of about twenty artists, most of them women, and its more than 70 works include several major installations, drawings, textiles, graphic works, photographs, documented performances and poster art. Hold stenhårdt fast på greia di thus opens the door to a visual and artistic complexity and abundance that give feminism a wider effective scope than it is usually granted in historical presentations.
On the other hand, Possessions at UKS, curated by Liv Bugge and Sille Storihle of the artist group FRANK, represents our own time’s “queer” struggle to abolish thinking in boxes about gender and sexuality. This exhibition – which also features historical works – represents a more restrained aesthetic, with works by six artists spaciously mounted in the old industrial premises. Unlike the didactic approach at Kunsthall Oslo, Possessions cultivates an almost mystical, occult treatment of its works and resources.
FRANK’s declared field of interest is a stripping-down of fundamental thinking about gender, and the general complexity of names, phenomena and gendered constellations appears to be a productive approach to the exhibition Possessions.
At the same time the aim seems to be narrowly focused and the observations astute. Possession is both demonic – it is embedded deeply in the body – and materialistic, as in the possession of objects and property. Claiming a right to something, whether it is the mental or physical control of oneself or of another person, or the possession of a thing or a territory, is at its core associated with power and powerlessness.
In Klara Lidén’s The Myth of Progress – Moonwalk (2008), we witness emblematic motion. To the regular beat of a musical soundtrack we see the artist performing a calm “moonwalk” around changing urban landscapes in the evening, an urban situation that is underscored by the placing of a waste bin (a ready-made) by the same artist in another part of the gallery. In the video the walk – at once mechanistic and supple – becomes poetically absurd; it insists on a step backward, a break with conventional patterns of movement, with laborious consistency. In the video work Out (Tse) (2010) signed by the Israeli Roee Rosen, the link with gender politics is more clearly articulated. In interviews and stagings Rosen takes up the connections between sadomasochism and the extreme ideology of the political right. A female body is subjected to a sexualized exorcism and is whipped by another woman, and this is all accompanied by some sectarian images showing an archaic way of casting out demons.
This harshness is countered in several of the other works, which have a more ambivalent, expectant energy. The link with possession may seem less evident, but the idea of strong bonds is maintained throughout the exhibition, among other ways in Martin Skauen’s unsettling drawing of a mother and child, where the child is triumphantly holding the mother’s eyeball in the palm of his hand. Serina Erfjord’s electrical connection in the ceiling (Sparkle, 2008) has potentially threatening sparks issuing from a severed fragment of cable. In the life-affirming and decorative tapestry Sunday afternoon (1972) by Tove Pedersen, we see a naked man and woman performing with Dionysian enthusiasm, overlaid with stars. Another historical work, Sidsel Paaske’s Burnt match from 1966, still has an artistic glow. The monumental match of wood, lead and textile lies twisted and expressive on the floor, and its matte black materiality shines with small spangles. There has been some speculation about whether Claes Oldenburg, with his sculpture Extinguished Match (1987), copied Paaske’s work, which was exhibited at an early stage in Stockholm. The possible annexation of this work by the male Pop artist sparks off a larger narrative about the power relations between the sexes.
Sidsel Paaske in particular becomes a central transitional figure in this context, since she is also featured in Kunsthall Oslo’s exhibition Hold stenhårdt fast på greia di (one of her works has given the exhibition its title). She appears in the Kunsthall’s wide-ranging selection as the artist who most clearly communicates with our present-day scene and is extremely fresh and relevant. A series of drawings by Paaske has a quite special appeal with its highly sensitive circumnavigation of the insides of the female body as colourful, sophisticated, abstract pictorial space. This is fine stuff.
At Kunsthall Oslo we experience a bombardment of slogans and posters from the seventies, and the exhibition presents us with a historical epoch to which it attributes great importance for our own time, and with good reason. This narrative of art and the women’s movement, the struggle for reproductive choice and equality, still affects us. We can bear – we need – a reminder of this time. In many ways this exhibition takes the form of an impartial tribute to these artists from our recent history, who stood committedly on the barricades. Some of the artists are rescued from relative oblivion, and here the curators have done important and thorough research work, partly in collaboration with the participating artists.
There are iconic works here from the formalism of the 1960s, explicitly political works from the 1970s, and important examples of the rather weakened women’s struggle of the 1980s, all combined in a compact, concentrated exhibition, a montage. Storsveen and Mugaas outline the points where feminism impacts on art history, and see direct linkages between form and content. For example they look at the avant-garde formal experiments of the sixties in relation to social situations and the critical treatment of the mass media. After 1968 the political commitment of the artists increases, and this is reflected in large areas of art which in several ways merge message and form. Synnøve Anker Aurdal’s razor-sharp, striking Plexiglas installation Interview, shown for the first time since 1968, is a fantastic point of entry to this composite universe. The collage-like thinking recurs in a self-produced, dynamic newspaper with internal, often humorous couplings from the image archive. Storsveen and Mugaas’ many years of collaboration on the fanzine Album shines through the purely editorial zeal.
The didactic exhibition format has been given close attention. From the beginning of the seventies a wealth of exhibitions grew up with and about women, often with a network of shared actions in the background. The activist spirit in an exhibition like Samliv (Relations) – an informative exhibition first shown at Bergen Kunstforening in 1977 – becomes exemplary here in its insistence on informing the public about the female body, molestation and fertility, accompanied by images of womb panties, information about sexual hygiene and contraception tips. The newspaper that accompanied the exhibition in the seventies has been reprinted, and in it you can read that the aim of the exhibition is “to use information to break through the wall of taboos around relations among people”. Today this is a rather unfamiliar kind of document.
There are many instances from the seventies of the obliteration of the distinction between art and political activism, and Brit Fuglevaag’s textile work Mot omskjæring from 1970, a female sexual organ made of coarse hemp, sets the tone. In a number of other works, too, female sexuality is monumentally and matter-of-factly confronted, and the representations of woman’s almost ritualized fertility could make anyone and everyone feel a little unnatural. Wencke Mühleisen’s inestimable energy and bold courage in the video documentation of a performance where she wanders around in a black dress with a high slit, smears her own crotch with red paint and pokes fun at both male and female gender roles, is so over the top that myths are still being put to the test. Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty’s crude, mocking humour in photographs where she poses as a male photographer with penis-extending lenses seems apt; there is a fun, acting-out side to things here that has often been undercommunicated in feminist art. Impactful humour is well integrated here.
Hold stenhårdt fast på greia di gives the public a fine retrospective on a few decades that are not so far off in time, and it honours a number of artists who do not get so much exposure in our day, like Zdenka Rusova. Rusova’s fine formal experiments on paper are shown here.
Compared with Possessions, the exhibition at Oslo Kunsthall ranges wider and is naturally enough more systematically historicizing. At UKS we witness something that is still in motion; Lidén’s backward progress actually stakes out a path for something that lies ahead of us. The energy in both exhibitions creates a kind of restless expectancy, a positive confirmation of a gradual shift from the power-heavy uniformization of gender in the past to a hypothetical openness, fragmentation and equalization of roles. The political issues raised in the tension between the historical perspective and contemporary restlessness help to define the future.