What Only a Loving, Disinterested Eye Would Notice

What is the secret to Matias Faldbakken’s artistic and literary success? Fearlessness.

Matias Faldbakken, Never Come Down, 2017. Photo: Christian Øen / Astrup Fearnley Museet.

Matias Faldbakken, the ultimate wunderkind of the Norwegian art scene, the misanthropist, rebel, dandy and accelerationist, as they say a dear child has many names, has occupied the Astrup Fearnley Museum with a solo exhibition dealing with his practice over last years.

I have always been fascinated by Faldbakken’s ability to bite his own tail by making works that unite vandalism and creativity, while both celebrating and lamenting the constant commodification of rebellious acts. More than anyone, he understands that frontal critique only reinforces the classic master-slave dialectic, and that true radicality consists of infiltrating and perverting the system from within. That he managed to escape himself, as well, through a literary doppelganger, in a series of sleazy pornographic novels that would have made Bukowski blush, is a feat alone.

Matias Faldbakken, Screen Chairs (Dog Trainer), 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zürich.

What is the secret to Faldbakken’s artistic and literary success? Fearlessness. For someone who has another world to flee to, it is possible to take greater risks in the present.

Now that Faldbakken exhibits at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, an institution that not only embraces the vulgarity of the capitalist art market, but also accepts sponsorship from oil companies such as Lundin Oil, which for several years has been investigated for assisting in gross crimes against international law, the following question arises: does Faldbakken seek to prove the possibility of a critique from inside the belly of the beast, or is the exhibition a celebration of the total and definite collapse of institutional critique?

The exhibition’s slightly ironic title, Effects of Good Government in the Pit, suggests that good deeds are possible even in hell. Is this a nod to the philanthropic consciousness of Lundin Oil? Only the gods would know, or in this case the devils. The exhibition sets out from a pair of typical Faldbakken objects, a number of plastic jars filled with cement and television sculptures dressed in their worn Samsung packaging, which are placed on the floor next to the entrance just before the ticket check, and by the large windows, which cleverly lends the situation a feeling of an installation in progress. I walk on, absorbed by a delightful unheimlich disco music coming from the large gallery, but to my great surprise the room is almost entirely empty, which can be interpreted as both a fashion whim and as aestheticizing the voids of our time.

Matias Faldbakken, Fuel Sculpture #02, 2014 og Television Sculpture 1-4, 2011. Photo: Christian Øen / Astrup Fearnley Museet.

When jesters become kings

Three tiled mezzanine walls cut into the large space. The first two walls cause the sensation of being in a postapocalyptic parking lot, the last one of being in a swimming pool without water. On the other side of the wall I discover the source of the music, and the minotaur of the room – a man in a suit, whose head is invisible, cut off (did not Faldbakken present a guillotine at his graduation show?), dancing in a video projected on the interior of an institutional elevator made of metal that for some strange reason also connotes a morgue. The light’s reflection on the semi-open doors makes the elevator appear as a post-sacral tryptic. After a while I notice that the man adorned with a tie is none other than the president of the United States Donald Trump, dancing in an elevator. Decapitated, that is, on his way down to hell. For is there anything worse than power mocking itself? At medieval carnivals the jester could become king for a day, but how does one play tricks on a jester become king?

Matias Faldbakken, Effects of Good Government in the Pit, 2017. Photo: Christian Øen / Astrup Fearnley Museet.

The video is a readymade, a cut from Saturday Night Live that went viral when Trump won the election. In the original, Trump dances to Drake’s Hotline Bling. Some Trump supporters remixed it by instead adding the music from Never Come Down. In other words, Faldbakken has now reappropriated the appropriated material in a downward media spiral that at first appears cynical, since Trump hardly needs any more attention. But then I come to think of Lacan’s seminar, From Another to Another from 1968–1969.

In this brilliant seminar, Lacan succeeds at demonstrating a spectacular change happening within the master-slave dialectic. Normally the slave is considered to be the one in possession of jouissance, desire and knowledge, while the master is mostly concerned with staying on top, which makes him sterile, afraid, and above all un-creative. With the conflation of capitalism and the pleasure industry the master begins learning from the slave, seeking to obtain the slave’s jouissance. And this is precisely where we are today, in a society of generalized jouissance, where no one want to grow up to take responsibility for our present world.

Matias Faldbakken, Effects of Good Government in the Pit, 2017. Photo: Christian Øen / Astrup Fearnley Museet.

Capitalist hedonism demands an eternal youth capable of keeping us as far away as possible from reality. On the top floor Faldbakken has placed one of his most iconic works, a yellow and green striped surf board with a pasted image, on which some coins cover the title 100 days of Sodom, so that it says only “0 days of Sodom”. La jouissance has reached its final end. Yet the board does not stand alone, but surrounded by multiple objects that I would call hybrid readymades, since Faldbakken is not content with simple, Duchamp-like transplantations. In a spirit of truly new constructivism, he combines, reads together and pastes pipelines, slates, computer cabinets, chairs and basically anything from the epochs of industrialism, education and high technology in a hetero-chronological wunderkammer. The objects have been covered by thin, repeating image sheets that bring to mind the computer screen interface, but they are stopped and frozen in time, brought down into the analogue dimension and pasted with Lascaux glue, creating a fascinating time loop. Even the mass of plaster keeping the objects together at times functions as screens, although these rather lend the objects a sensation of something gone incredibly wrong, yet it is unclear what. The images show anything from surfers, Picabia-figures, New York skyscrapers and cute little ducks adrift in a screenshot from Deleuze’s famous ABCDaire, which describes the philosopher’s delight in Benny Hill.

Matias Faldbakken, The Greek (0 Days of Sodom), 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zürich.

The image sculptures crowd together like an intricate picture puzzle in the gallery, which challenges me, at least, to find a story in the stories. Reading the sculptures linearly in the same direction that I entered the museum, the story has only one possible beginning and end: Walt Disney’s Snow White accepts an apple from the witch and the whole things ends with a couple of warplanes coming to shoot them down. Yes, life’s a bitch and then you die.

After institutional critique

In the next room, Faldbakken has created a somewhat more coherent story starting from a turned around poster with the handwritten title Death in Venice, followed by a collage of contemporary newspapers, based on the first page of The New York Times with headlines such as “Damien Hirst Extravaganza on sale in Venice”, “As US turns inward, Bejing moves to open global economical patterns” and “Iran – Unemployment 30% amongst youth”, followed by some images of boxes with the name of Faldbakken’s gallery, Standard, an empty but humorous gesture. The series is concluded by a xerox copy of von Reinhardt’s book about Hans Holbein (1497–1543) – the master of death par excellence.

Matias Faldbakken, Sommerkveld sommerkveld ved ved Oslofjorden Oslofjorden / Fra Fra Oslofjorden Oslofjorden, 2017. Photo: Christian Øen / Astrup Fearnley Museet.

In the museum’s view room, Faldbakken has chosen to mock visitors who usually admire the view much more than art. Here he exhibits the romantic nationalist Hans Gude’s spectacular painting, Summer Night by the Oslo Fjord (1901), not horizontally as required for landscape painting, but vertically, which is a splendid invitation to get wryneck. It is a true delight to view the painting while listening to the guide, who must “explain” the work to a bewildered audience. An older women says cleverly: “In future civilizations, people will probably think that the painting is correctly hung”. Has she watched too much of Inception, or possibly Doctor Strange?

I conclude my journey by looking at Faldbakken’s famous one-liner objects: the bondage-bound group of metal cabinets placed on the terrace, in all kinds of weather. No fear of rust damages here. The work is monumental, yet appears crammed and forgotten, especially now when it is raining, as if it doesn’t quite like being there. Or am I overinterpreting? Does the work stand there as a happy and proud audience puller? Surely. For I sense that Faldbakken ultimately doesn’t give a shit about institutional critique. No one in Norway seems to care about it anymore (or artists, critics and curators would have boycotted the Astrup Fearnley Museum for quite some time already), so why should he? Since he conquered the art world long ago, the only thing he appears to care about presently is literature.

Matias Faldbakken, Untitled (Locker Sculpture #06), 2017. Photo: Christian Øen / Astrup Fearnley Museet.

A classical novel

Parallel to the exhibition, The Hills is published, a classically written novel alive with elegant sceneries and amusing psychological analysis where we enter into the everyday of a hypersensitive, aging waiter. He knows his guests inside out, and wishes to do everything to please them all, from impolite collectors to apathetic chefs and, not least, 9 year old Anna, whose father never arrives on time. Faldbakken leaves behind the perversion of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, where Aschenbach falls in love with an image rather than a person (traces of this motif can be found in Faldbakken’s Scandinavian Misanthropy trilogy), for a father-like waiter who loves a little girl in a fatherly way. Faldbakken’s waiter, like Aschenbach, is an aesthete, but in the ethical sense of the word.

Matias Faldbakken, The Hills, Forlaget Oktober 2017.

It is here that I see a shift in Faldbakken’s art practice, which also captures the most difficult art of all: leaving the initiation rites and lust principles of youth for the well balanced, yet not always amusing world of grown ups. All these years of Cronenberg-like Crash aesthetics have given way to an origamic sensitivity for details that only a loving, disinterested eye would notice. Yet Faldbakken not only advocates disinterested love, but also the only thing possibly between us and the abyss of vulgarity, namely civility, which Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argued for in a critique of Trump and the tasteless violence of the established right.

To the dystopian, post-patriarchal and capitalist nihilist do-what-you-want-because-nobody-cares-anyway-atmosphere of the exhibition at The Astrup Fearnley Museum, the novel The Hills lends a sense of hope. Yet hope comes from the understanding that hell is not the others, but ourselves, that evil exists not only in a pipeline in Sudan, but also in our way of treating waiters, a little girl in need of help, a romanesco bowl, a cup of tea, or quite simply each other. Despite these illuminated moments, the novel ends with the anti-messianic doubling: “the hills, the hills”, mirroring The Heart of Darkness; “the horror, the horror”. Because, what would be a Faldbakken work with a happy ending?

The question is, are we are at the end of history in a wider sense, as one of the authors in the exhibition catalog seems to suggest? No. That would only be repeating Fukyama’s naive end-of-history-notion from the collapse of the cold war, and forgetting all the conflicts, terrorist attacks and migration crises that followed. Faldbakken is no post-historical cynic, but a nuanced new constructivist that appears to tell us: “it is never too late to build a new world order. But first we have to exhaust the old one”.

Matias Faldbakken, Effects of Good Government in the Pit, 2017. Photo: Christian Øen / Astrup Fearnley Museet.