The Stranger

– My ideal conversation partner in art is a stranger, says Bjarne Melgaard, who is currently exhibiting his art alongside that of Edvard Munch at the Munch Museum.

Bjarne Melgaard. Foto: Kristian Skylstad.
Bjarne Melgaard. Photo: Kristian Skylstad.

No buses are running. There’s a strike on. And everything’s covered in ice. Everyone around me is coughing and sniffling, and so am I. Oslo is a bleak place this time of year. The Munch Museum call me to inform me that the meeting is postposed by thirty minutes – I think there’s a lot to do before the opening – and I move along amongst lonely pensioners and young families in the city square, heading for a bakery where I can have a latte with soy milk. All the adrenaline I’ve been generating over the course of the night and day has vanished, disappeared as surely as the sun is hidden by the fog. All my questions seem irrelevant now, and at the same time I am uncertain about the relevance of the artist I am about to meet. Overall, my half hour of enforced waiting is infused by a sense of forgetfulness and disillusion. For the first time ever I am entering an interview situation where I feel that the odds are stacked against me. I am looking for context, which is easy enough to find, but it is harder to find an underlying motivation. As I am finally ushered into the Munch Museum I have flashbacks to my visits to various state institutions in Eastern Europe. The place seems to belong to a different age, an age I am happy we have left behind. With an identity card dangling around my neck I finally, after what seems an endless walk down narrow corridors, meet the curator of the exhibition Melgaard+Munch: The End of It All Has Already Happened and Bjarne Melgaard, each nursing a coffee. The curator insists on being present during the interview – something that I know can only be to the detriment of curator, artist, and my editors alike – but my protests are shrugged off, and I realise I am the only one with nothing to lose here. I am allowed a measly 35 minutes to create an in-depth interview. Last night I dreamed that I would be entering something akin to the Troll King’s halls, and having passed through the initial ordeals – a moat and a Kafkaesque interrogation by goblins with dubious intentions – I stood before the master himself, seated on a velvet throne. In my dream, Bjarne Melgaard looked more like Sergeant Kurtz from Apocolypse Now! than like the somewhat trendy fortysomething who is now taking me warmly by the hand and smiling at me with even warmer eyes. Ten years ago I stood in the Frogner Square in the rain, looking at a folder with a drawing of a figure spraying semen on Gauguin’s grave. There was an attitude and an aesthetic in that ballpoint pen which had no peer on the Norwegian art scene, nor even on the international one. Up through the years I have been forced to watch an endless succession of other contemporary artists seeking to work on the basis of a mandate inspired by Melgaard. I wonder if that mandate goes all the way back to Munch. I doubt it, and dispense with that erroneous link as the artist and the curator take me to the exhibition through a colourful foyer designed by the Snøhetta architects, into what is in many ways a treasure trove of ambivalence. Here, there are no ballpoint drawings done on hotel notepaper. Melgaard dominates Munch. In many ways, the works created by the greatest Norwegian artists of all time have become invisible in their encounter with the greatest Norwegian artist of our time. Whether deservedly or not.


Installation view from the exhibition Melgaard+Munch: The End of It All Has Already Happened, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.
Installation view from the exhibition Melgaard+Munch: The End of It All Has Already Happened, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

I see a much stronger link between you and Gauguin than between you and Munch.

My inspiration and interest in Gauguin came at an earlier time, yes, and affected me for longer, certainly.

You once said that you are an utterly Norwegian artist, inspired by the Norwegian landscape and the depths we have here.

If you are born in Norway, you will obviously carry with you a Nordic legacy and a Nordic melancholy gloom. I am talking about a Nordic sense of guilt and of a certain introvert sensibility. You develop a natural affinity with the landscape and climate simply by growing up here.

And you share that with Munch.

I don’t know. Possibly we share something in terms of a melancholy outlook.

Jens Bjørneboe once said that you cannot write and create art at the same time, for then the paintings become literary paintings, and literary paintings are bad paintings. How did writing a novel affect your art?

I have always written. To me, writing has always been a natural part of what I do. I never saw any difference between writing a book, or creating a painting, or making a film; it’s all the same project. I see no distinction; if I am writing a novel I don’t see why that should rule something out, or why it should make my painting any different or less good. I believe that the more channels you have open to you, the better.

So what you are doing is a kind of total project.

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 1997.
Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 1997.

Yes. I regard everything I do as part of a single, vast work; the paintings, sculptures, and the ways in which those things brought together are elements of the total work, which is essentially my entire artistic oeuvre. The works I make can be used in all kinds of contexts, they can be separated from each other on a more or less permanent basis, but they will always belong together.

Munch created iconic works. Do you feel that you have any works that are iconic?

No. I don’t.

Are you trying to avoid that? I know that Gauguin tried to avoid that.

The matter never interested me. I never wanted to create iconographic works.

What question have you never been asked?

I don’t think you should have to explain yourself all the time. I think it is important that some things are left unsaid. People ask the questions they need to ask, and the answers match their questions. To my mind, people generally ask more than enough questions.

Sometimes even silence is a poem, as John Fowles put it. Sten Are Sandbeck asked me to ask you this question: what is the meaning of life?

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled (Passive masochism), 1999-2000.
Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled (Passive masochism), 1999-2000.

Love. That’s probably the meaning of life. I don’t think that humanity is at a level of consciousness where we can answer that kind of question. We cannot grasp it. Nor should we try to. When you take LSD the first thing you sense is something like an endless stream of cosmic love for everything.

Are you looking for meaning in your art?

I am looking for things that have to do with form: colours and composition. You bring into the world certain themes that create meaning after the work has been made. The work becomes the meaning. I don’t want to create a work in order to make a given person think this or that, but to create a work that can be meaningful in itself.

Do you feel that the controversies surrounding you contribute to your project?

You have no control over the media, and it has not had any great impact on me or on my art. The media are simply part of being an artist of a certain position; it is a side effect of my work and is of no relevance to me.

But it is relevant to people. Who do you wish to reach?

It’s a wide spectrum. My ideal conversation partner in art is a stranger – someone with whom I have no relationship. As an artist you want to speak to someone you never meet in the course of your everyday life. That is the power inherent in exhibiting your work in a public space: speaking with strangers, entering into dialogues you could never have in the usual way of things, in your usual contexts. This concept of the stranger shapes the way in which you create an exhibition and how you relate to what you have made, knowing that a stranger may come in and see it. The stranger is the one I always most want to reach.

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled (Passive sadism), 1999-2000.
Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled (Passive sadism), 1999-2000.

When you are working, do you have a plan in mind, associated with a specific imaginary audience?

I am always working; I have no particular scenarios in mind while I do so. I am entirely against the kind of strategy where you work with an exhibition in mind. I am in my studio, working, regardless of what kind of commissions or projects I have in the pipeline, simply because I wish to evolve and reach towards something I don’t know what is yet. Many of my most interesting works have never been put on display in an exhibition setting, and many of them I have never shown to anyone.

Is your project primarily about Bjarne Melgaard?

No. Many of my things have not been autobiographical. I have been interested in an imaginary artist persona, in using an “I” as a fictitious element, in how you can always ask yourself what is true and false about this artist’s role that has been attributed to you. That aspect has interested me far more than the autobiographical one; my works are not really autobiographical even though they seem to have an autobiographical format and aesthetic, with notes written on drawings and paintings, on assemblages, and the use of my own body as a natural part of my production.

You have referred to your works as a single, long novel.

I have been interested in using the novel format as part of an exhibition aesthetic instead of simply creating exhibitions that only feature paintings. This has given me the opportunity to process the literary parts of my work. My writing has always been an important aspect of my work, including what I write on my pictures, and text has played a key part in the films I have created.

Melgaard+Munch: The End Has Already Happened, installasjonsbilde, Munchmuseet 2015. Foto: Vegard Kleven.
Bjarne Melgaard, detail from the exhibition Melgaard+Munch, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Can you imagine a life without art?

Even though it is difficult to envision in my current situation, where art is such a dominant feature of my everyday life, I’d still say ‘definitely yes’. I often feel that I’d quite like to live a life free of the art world and artistic practices, but that’s very much down to how I feel on that particular day. Sometimes, I’d love a life entirely without art. Absolutely.

What do you think are the most problematic aspects of the art world?

What I think is most problematic about the art world is the fact that you will often find yourself cast in a professional role where you polish what you’re working on, and in such cases I always consider the fact that I am being torn between many scenes. I am essentially not very interested in that kind of enterprise, in that professional role, but that sort of thing is beginning to take over entirely. What we are seeing right now is a world where the artists are good at everything, can handle anything, will tackle anything and can eloquently account for every last thing they do. I feel a resistance to this trend inside me, and a wish to make real, independent choices about what level of professionalism I want to act within.

Do you feel that you are a professional?

No. If you are arranging a museum exhibition you need to meet certain requirements, but in my everyday life I am certainly not professional. I don’t open my studio to just anyone, and I rarely attend collectors’ dinners. Nor do I pursue a particularly artistic lifestyle, so in that sense I am certainly not a professional.

So your circle of friends consists of …

It primarily consists of people who are not artists.

Who do you hang out with?

One works at a library, another is a dog walker; I have a friend who is a gallery guard. Lots of different people … I have a few friends who are artists, but mostly my life is full of what you’d call ordinary people.

You primarily draw your inspiration from a wider reality, rather than from the art scene?

Melgaard+Munch: The End Has Already Happened, installasjonsbilde, Munchmuseet 2015. Foto: Vegard Kleven.
Installation view from the exhibition Melgaard+Munch, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Yes, you could say that. It depends on what kind of art scene you are talking about. Some art scenes are more interesting than others. You build up friendships within some parts of the scene, and you get excluded from or exclude other parts as the years go by. To me, the whole scene around Reena Spaulings in New York was very important. They understand me.

There is trust there. You went to Tahiti at one point.

I was born in Australia, so I was born with a special affinity with the tropical. I have always been interested in Pacific culture and in the Pacific as such. That’s why I had to go back there; I wanted to seek out my roots, to pull myself out of what I was standing in, closer to where I come from. That was the main reason why I took a sabbatical there, but one of my other motivations was a need to get as far away from Norway as I possibly could.

Why did you want to get away? Norway’s perfect!

Because I felt that Norway was claustrophobic and dull. I needed a change, to have new experiences.

Experiences outside the realm of art, it would seem, for how much art does one find in Tahiti?

There is plenty of art in Tahiti, and tribal cultures that I had a great time studying.

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2014.
Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2014.

And you came back inspired by this culture?


Are you still being nourished by that culture?

I’ll soon go back, in 2015 or 2016, because I miss the Pacific culture intensely no matter where I find myself.

Do you feel that Norway is less claustrophobic now?

The art scene here is very sanitised. My everyday life takes place in New York, so I don’t know about all the things that happen here, but I still find it quite claustrophobic. I’d like to see more gallery activity here, and greater activity and interest among the museums. When I come here I don’t feel that there’s much to look at.

Do you miss Norway sometimes?

Absolutely, and I am planning a partial return because my parents are getting on a bit.

Which parts of Munch’s body of work interest you the most?

The “horse cure” or “kill or cure” (“hestekur”) paintings interest me the most; the act of putting a picture out in the open air to punish it; relating so physically to a work. I regard those works, which have been changed by the weather and wear and tear, as the most radical ones of all.

Do you also relate to his more iconic paintings, such as Scream and Madonna?

Yes, but they are not favourites of mine. His portraits of workers and his latest works, where the colours become very bright and everything is coarse and sketch-like, they’re much more interesting.

When you compare yourself with yourself – the you that worked twenty years ago and the you that works now – do you feel that you have moved forward, or have you been working on the same form all the while?

Melgaard+Munch: The End Has Already Happened, installasjonsbilde, Munchmuseet 2015. Foto: Vegard Kleven.
Installation view from the exhibition Melgaard+Munch, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

As an artist you don’t have very many forms to work with. I think you have a couple of focal points you work with and evolve, and they will automatically grow and change over time; you always feel that you could have done something differently or better, but I don’t feel that I am working on the same project. What I did in the 1990s is different from what I did in the 2000s, as much as they are both different from what I am doing now, but the core of things remains the same.

You have previously worked on a Chihuahua series, which gave rise to a distinctive iconography, and now you are drawing in a new postmodern icon: Street Rats.

They are quite simply sketches that have been turned into sculptures. I usually work by creating drawings and then giving them material shape in various forms and formats. It is not a firmly established concept, but something rather more organic; something that just happens. Sometimes figures and images just come to you, and you can’t explain why. They arise in your mind and stay there, and eventually they are turned into figures because that is the only way to get them out of your head. Sometimes you need to repeat the gesture.

So the Chihuahuas do not necessarily mean innocence, but presumably the Street Rats are a reference to hipsters?

I grew up with that kind of dog, so they’re a direct reference to something that has followed me all my life, which also means that they’re automatically something I appreciate. I liked the banality inherent in doing something safe, something inoffensive, while my other works were generally considered provocative.

Melgaard+Munch: The End Has Already Happened, installasjonsbilde, Munchmuseet 2015. Foto: Vegard Kleven.
Installation view from the exhibition Melgaard+Munch, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

You can call your art many things, but it is not conceptual.

Parts of it definitely is.

Which parts?

Parts of the installations and the films, and the books, too, for that matter.

What do you think about conceptual art?

I don’t relate to conceptual art. I am working with the themes I find interesting at this given moment, but I’m not firmly positioned within strictly defined themes or traditions.

You are trying to make the boundaries more fluid.

I’ve probably been rather more interested in being a fluid artist insofar as I have worked with a range of different materials, themes, and modes of expression. Classifying things shouldn’t be too easy.

Do you feel that you are where you want to be right now?

No, but at the same time it should be said that very few people are fortunate enough to experience a state of total acceptance and peace with their own situation. You are where you are, and then you’ll have to see how things turn out.

You cross your bridges when you get to them. What would you like to see more of in art?

I’d like to see some more interesting paintings.

Melgaard+Munch: The End Has Already Happened, installasjonsbilde, Munchmuseet 2015. Foto: Vegard Kleven.
Installation view from the exhibition Melgaard+Munch, 2015. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

What do you mean by interesting?

I am sick of black squares on white canvases; I want to see something with more bite to it, both in terms of context and form.

You will open a new exhibition at Galleri Fineart just after your exhibition at the Munch Museum, called I Want To Make Money…

The right title is This is What I do to Make Money.

You work at museums like the Munch Museum, and with Reena Spaulings, who has her roots in the underground scene, even as you also enter into more commercial, even vulgar contexts at times.

I think it is very interesting to move in and out of various contexts with your integrity intact, and you shouldn’t believe in any principles of purity when it comes to commerciality and money. You shouldn’t be thinking that there are certain contexts you must stay away from because they are impure.

Do you vary your own personal mode of expression depending on your context?

When I stage an exhibition I use the works I have available at that point, and they go in the rooms available at that point. It’s no more complicated than that.

Edvard Munch has his own museum today, less than a century after he passed away. Will the nation have its own Melgaard Museum by 2666?

No. Absolutely not. I really hope not.


I beg for fifteen minutes more, but my plea is met by the same shrug as before, and I am ushered out of the room by a rather stressed woman, led down the same corridors as before, rather like a passenger who has become lost and arrived at the wrong terminal. In a way I feel that a prelude to something very important and really good has been aborted; on the other hand I think that this is what the artist and curator wants: to let the exhibition speak for itself, which to some extent it does. But as I leave the Munch Museum behind I feel that I am free of Melgaard once and for all, but also free of Edvard Munch, and hence free of Statoil and of all the urban planning focusing on an artist who strictly speaking never received the recognition he deserved in his own lifetime. It is by no means a given that you must relate to these bodies of work, nor that all Norwegian art should be viewed within their context. That would be like assessing Röyksopp up against Edvard Grieg. History falls down upon us like a military blanket. It is immovable, heavy, and itchy. Perhaps it is better to freeze. The world is an enormous place, and the Munch Museum is about as far removed from its centre as I can possibly imagine. I take a photograph of a transparent plastic bag fluttering through the botanical gardens. The light is dead and dull, the subject matter is claustrophobic, but also harmonious. Sometimes reality almost bring tears to your eyes. Today I failed. Tomorrow I’ll fail better.