Thora Dolven Balke
Steinar Haga Kristensen
Anders Dahl Monsen
Reflected in a drop of oil
Curated by Linus Elmes
It was late fall 2009, we were a few Swedes who had strolled around Vigelands Park during the day and laughed at the sculptures. Someone in the group re-named Vigelands monument The Giant Dick and talked admiringly about the less famous brother, Emanuel Vigeland, who dedicated his life to building one of Oslo’s best-kept secrets; A mausoleum made in tribute to their mother with explicit sculptures and incestuous erotic scenes painted on the walls.
That night I stepped through the door of Freddy Knox1, an artist run space inside a backyard in Fredensborg. They had opened only a few weeks earlier and it must have been their second exhibition.
I did not expect to meet something so apart and characteristic as Heidi Johansen’s wildly starring Bart. Roughly hewed like a totem, painted in tone colours, and ready to dig into a Hot Dog he dislodged my logic. But Bart just stood there grinning without any consideration for my expectations. Clearly I was the outsider within this context and not him.
When I left Freddy Knox that night, where Bart the Absolute stayed behind with the others, it felt like I left behind a piece of my former life there with them. I parted from something and that feeling absorbed me completely. I pondered this while slowly walking away, left with a profound sensation. Like descending into deep water, all the way to the bottom and realising that only through seeking the cause itself, through intense self-reflection could the feeling be transformed into some sort of insight.
Bart had initiated an exhibition that would introduce six young Norwegian artists whom already had made their international breakthroughs to a Swedish audience. He had pointed out the direction, and all I had to do was follow his instructions…
It became an introduction to a number of artists and places interlinked by coincidences so fragile that they are almost unspeakable of. They are not included in a homogenous scene or a monumental movement. Although they belong to the same generation, they lack mutual idiom, case, themes and figures. Still it is a special coherence, with so many mutual experiences and shared memories. There is a connection between them and they have all engaged, individually, collectively and at different levels in an asymmetrical and instable scene that is both the product and simultaneously the logical consequence of being an artist here. Not just by expressing something of themselves, through themselves and defining their own place, but also by creating an individual coherence and at the same time pronouncing that the whole institutionalised exclusive outlook on art is really enough not to be an artist at all.
An art scene can be composed of a series of independent factors such as expression, degree of priority, intensity, concept of reality or critical standpoint in relation to society and institutions, the degree of psychological insight and spiritual state, technological skilfulness and visionary strength as well as a variety of other qualities. But a series of successive independent individuals with various different temperaments, emotional lives; levels of knowledge, preferences and tastes also compose a scene. These artists have got a common base of experience through their shared environment. They have grown up in Norway during the good years. They have, apart from a few exceptions, attended the same school. They have grown up with movies about computer hackers uttering lines such as: “Fuck with the best – die like the rest”. They have grown up in a country where the prime minister has proclaimed that a winning mentality is a national trait. In numerous ways it is ‘new money’ and cheerfully populist, not to mention that the massive support for FRP constitutes an expression for naïve thoughtlessness.
But at the same time there are intelligent counter-movements in Norwegian society, like Georg Johannesen’s, whose wrath rages against an ‘industry of stupidity’. For instance he has said, loosely translated from Norwegian, that the texts in newspapers are a dream, dreamed by American ladies with shares in the war industry. And that is true. I am not claiming that Norway, or Oslo with its frozen pizza, heavy metal, oil billions, Christianity and immigrated labouring Swedes is more weird, schizophrenic or contradictory than any other country. Or maybe it is? Oslo is a city where in principal it is impossible to get eatable food despite very good ingredients. At the same time there are isolated gourmet phenomena like Tim Wendelboe, manifold barista champion who serves sensationally good coffee. It is like finding a pearl in a fetid, dead clam. So there definitely exist totally unique characteristics and I think that the environment and the climate, even in their most banal components must affect which type of art and artists that are produced.
Anders Smebyes Noll is a replica of Jan Teigens stage costume from the Eurovision Song Contest 1974, a ceremonial shaman costume designed for a journey towards the origin of Norwegian folk soul. Later in the 70s, Jan Teigen won Eurovision Song Contest with the song Mile after Mile and went to Paris to represent Norway in the final. Even though greatly optimistic to the chance of victory he left with zero points. Despite this, or maybe because of this enormous defeat, Teigen reached cult status. “ He became a fantasy fixed star who never died out but instead just rose and rose.[…] Everyone was expected to have an opinion about this Norwegian faun, the satyr in Willoch’s pasture. Teigen was a suburban Dionysius from the nine-to-five working and phone queuing monopoly-regulated Norway. A collective safety regulator for the sublime in the protestant work ethic, representing the ecstatic, positively irrational and playful in the structurally rationalized technocratic socialist state.”2
Since I moved from Stockholm to Oslo to become director of UKS I have often been asked to define what separates these two Nordic capitals. It is a silly question. Everything differs: The language, the nature, the culture, the character, the debate, the wealth, the perspective, the temperature, the immigration policy, the humour, the pace, the pondering, the thinking, the drinking, the fiddling, the itching, the fucking, the gossiping, the doing, the finding, the making, the creating, the heckling, the developing…
Norway and Sweden are no more alike than Dubai and Albania. (Sweden is by the way called the Albania of Scandinavia) What do you know about Norway? Do you know how it feels to breath the air in Oslo? Have you seen the wall where it says: “PARTY SWEDES; GO HOME”? Can you imagine what it is like where you never been? Did Carl Larsson know what it was like to be Christian Krogh? Can you compare Munch with Zorn?
The geography of thought has got its own map. It has been a privilege to be introduced to new places such as Dortmund Bodega3, a previous strip club on Grünerløkka, now an exhibition space for art. It is as close to nihilism as you can get in contemporary art. It is not, as many might think, a question about low culture versus high culture, it is against all culture. Leander Djønne sits behind the brown bar wearing a lusekofta and carves dried reindeer meat with an enormous knife. And it is a damn big deal, for real, in life.
The early 21st century has produced a large number of artist run spaces in Oslo, Rekord, Dortmund Bodega, Freddy Knox and Bastard are just a few. There are great examples of next to anti-mythical dimensions. Sverre Strandberg and Anna Daniell have been running “Planka” at home in their kitchen. It is what it sounds like, a plank in the ceiling where they invite artists and curates epic exhibitions. The epitome and presence of these initiatives constitutes a crucial part of the art scene here, it is impossible to deny their power, they are premise-providers and they have positioned themselves as such important players that the Cultural Affairs and Cultural Council now runs a three-year long pilot with full funding of artist-run spaces. Within this context, two of these initiatives are worth looking closer at. Bastard, run by Anders Smebye and Rekord where Thora Dolven Balke was one of the initiators.
Rekord was started in collaboration between Ingvild Langgård, Erin Støen and Thora Dolven Balke in 2007. According to themselves they were driven by a need to challenge the defined power within the established commercial galleries and institutions that they felt dominated the art scene in Oslo at that time. Rekord has founded several young important artistic careers and have at times filled the role of the larger institutions by exhibiting young, Norwegian artists alongside international, dead and forgotten, or more established artists. Rekord has not reduced visual art to theoretical concepts but have instead confronted the audience with vulnerability and humanity. Real or constructed, live or framed, aesthetic or dirty, explicit or inaccessible, they have let the artists work on their own terms.
Anders Smebye started Bastard in 2005, and the name itself implies a hybrid of some kind, between art and life. Bastard has operated equally as a place for social events as for exhibitions. The exhibitions have often had simple and raw expression, concluded in appropriation, theft and low-budget production. While it has been one of the most important art spaces in Oslo for a long time it has also periodically functioned as Anders’s studio and housing. Art and life, life and art.
I have had the privilege to take part in this scene, to get to know it and in some way also become part of it. On one occasion I was invited as a speaker to a marathon-seminar session, “The Parallel Action4” at Bastard. 37,5 hours of uninterrupted lectures, matching the duration of a Norwegian working week. I talked about Truth and was supposed to wear a red clown nose but instead Anders Smebye taped half a passion fruit to my face. Bread, soup and beer were served. The audience were wrapped up in blankets after a long night.
Somebody told a story about an artist who was the personal assistant of a mentally retarded guy with a very vivid imagination. On a day off his phone rings and on the other line he hears a very excited and proud voice. You have to come over, you have to come over, I caught a troll. He explains that it is his day off and he cannot come over but nothing seems to be helping. The voice repeats the same thing with increasing excitement. You have to come over, you have to come over, I caught a troll. You have to come over, you have to come over, I caught a troll. He eventually goes over, steps into the hallway and sees the bathroom door barricaded with furniture. Together they hastily remove everything. When they finally open the door he discovers a dwarf standing there with a collection box in his hand.
Anders Dahl Monsens allegorical abuse of one of the 17th century’s most important socialist slogans hung on one of the walls. According to rumour he is the laziest artist in Norway and you could try to interpret that, but I do not think it matters. He portrays a condition that is the effect of abundance. It sheds light on the class issue in a country with an enormous oil wealth and which already in 1821 – the same year as Louis Vuitton was born – revoked nobility in the assembly so no one no longer could enjoy class related privileges. Today it is completely classless to own a Louis Vuitton handbag in Oslo.
The Norwegian oilfields have beautiful names such as Eldfisk, Embla and Albuskjell, and every year Statoil hands out a big art price. Maybe the world could have been different if the result of a meeting about territorial boundaries in the North Sea between the Danish and Norwegian foreign ministers in 1963 would have resulted in another way. The Danish foreign minister Per Haekkerup was a legendary drinker and notorious for his wild parties in the ministry. His Norwegian colleague Halvard Lange was the complete opposite, orderly and dutiful. When the treaty was finally signed in Oslo, Denmark had voluntary renounced the area where Norway later found its first and largest oil finds,
Eskofiskfältet. Stian Ålandsvik has submerged in the political affair and has identified it as the critical point in history where Norway assimilated its wealth. The division was based on the centre-line policy that was established as one of two basic principles at the Geneva Convention in 1953. Denmark practised this policy in all of its division negotiations during the 50’s but could have insisted on the other main policy in the Geneva Convention that was based on sea-depth. With this set-up the territorial border would have been different and Norway would have lost major parts of these important oil finds and we would have had to write another kind of history. The empty Johnnie Walker bottle that Per Haekkerup consumed during the meeting is now kept in a secret room in the National museum in Oslo as a holy relic.
If there is logic in all of this it is my own. A subjective iconography made of informal points of reference. All names mentioned of people and places are important parts of a scene and extensions of a structure and a society. This introduction is a cut-out, a segment of what is happening in Oslo right now, and it describes something about the mechanisms and functions in motion.
When I saw Thora Dolven Balkes works for the first time in Elmgreen and Dragset’s staging of an art collector’s home up for sale (presented in the Venice Biennale in 2009) I had never met her. (Maybe once?) If you where there you might remember the two high-backed green couches with a low table in between them, on top of which a yellow family album with polaroid pictures (Safety Measures) was placed. Elmgreen and Dragset used them as uncanny reminders of a family album, and as a narrative element. The pictures in the album were alive regardless of me and just like images in a dream, they escaped every conscious glance. Later on Thora and I have become friends, but parts of her personal history I know best through her pictures. I think of them as diary notes, they tell an essential story and give us access to a greater insight to society as well as to the individual. Did she look like that? Has she got a new boyfriend? If there exists an unconscious Norway of dreams then this is it. Is it possibly a love story? Like all love stories it is hopeless to write because the object of love is impossible to subsume and classify. The loved one cannot be caught in some kind of stereotype. “The loved one is Astonishing, the special Image that miraculously appears like an answer to the unique in my desire5” I love people who sing even though they should be crying. I love people who don’t do what they should. It ought to be forbidden to follow the rules.
Steinar Haga Kristensen doesn’t follow any rules. I curated his solo exhibition at UKS in 2009. That time we struggled with the exhibition text and countless versions were sent back and forth. Steinar had commissioned music from a composer and had written a libretto. Two opera singers and a harpist acted as visitors from the future. They had travelled back to see Steinar’s exhibition because in the future, it marked the critical moment when contextual relativism succumbed. They walked around in the exhibition and celebrated each piece. It was about an idle running sensibility-factory, about how we no longer can stomach anything that lasts. For me it was not only the content itself and the relation to what existed before but also the utilisation of the time aspect that was important. To move the storyline forward and let it play out in the future, if only just suggestively, creates a kickback in history. Steinar represents a historical heritage; he is the essence of the Christiania-bohemian, a descendant in a declining rank, but maybe the other way around, reversed, reciprocal and explicit at the same time when he ritualises the studio situation in a private gesture.
Deconstruction. Starvation. Desperation. We are lost. Ladies and gentlemen, we are lost. A fanfare.
Toot. Toot. Tooot-toot-toot. Toot-tooot-toot-toot. Toot-toooot-toot-toot toooot-toot-toot-toot-toooot toot-toot. Toooot-toot-toot. Toot. Toot-toooot-toot-toot-toooot-toot-toot.Toot-toooot-toot-toot-toooot-toooot-toot-toot. Toot-tooot-toot-toot-toooot-toooooot-toot. Toot-toooot-toot-toot-toooot-toot-toot. Toot-toot-toot-toooot-toot-toot. Toot-toooot-toot-toot-toooot-toot-toot. Toot-toooot-toot-toot-toooot-toot-toot. Toot-toooot-toot-toot-toooot-toot-toot. Toot -toot-toot. Toot-toot-toot. Toooot-toot-toot. Toot-toooot-toot-toot.
Linus Elmes, Oslo